Fred and Gabi
Gabi and Fred first met during her training in orthoptics in the early 1970s. By the mid 1970s, they were working together at the Prince of Wales Hospital where he was head of the ophthalmology department and she was the senior orthoptist.
Fred was preparing for the National Trachoma and Eye Health Program, which needed a range of medical health professionals, and Fred asked Gabi if she would come on the road with him.
“Gabi – a beautiful young woman to whom I was strongly attracted – agreed, and that was the tentative and provisional beginning of our relationship,” said Fred.
On the road together
The NTEHP teams spent three years travelling across the outback, clocking up more than eighty thousand kilometres as they covered as much as they could of rural and remote Australia, setting up their tents in the red dirt and examining eyes in the most isolated of communities.
“I remember the time when I recognised what a good woman Gabrielle O’Sullivan was,” said Fred. The team was in an Indigenous camp and it was hot and they’d seen hundreds of people that day, and Gabi had the difficult task of getting people to participate in a vision test.
“Gabi was just as nice, just as friendly to the last person as she was to the first, and having done it hundreds of times that day. Gabi didn’t alter her tone of voice because somebody was an old Aboriginal man or woman, or whether they were the station owner or the station manager, they all got the same courteous treatment…That kind of innate goodness is rare.”
Fred and Gabi married in 1980 and they had five children – Cam, Emma, Anna-Louise and twins Rosa and Ruth. Fred had two older children – Tanya and Ben – from his previous relationships.
A house full of people
The Hollows family base was ‘Farnham House’, a big Victorian sandstone place in Randwick that Fred had bought in the mid 1970s.
“I had the idea that the small nuclear family wasn’t the best kind of living unit,” he said. “I thought a bigger group was the way to go. For that, you needed a big house.”
Photographs from the time show a house full of people. If Fred and Gabi liked someone and they needed or wanted a place to stay, they moved in, often for years. The dinner table was always boisterous and chaotic. The family flew the Aboriginal flag in honour of Indigenous guests, and these were many. When doctors came from overseas to train with Fred, they often stayed with the family as well.
Big ideas around the dinner table
“Fred and I first came to Nepal with the World Health Organisation in 1985 and that is when we first met the inspirational Dr Sanduk Ruit,” says Gabi. “I remember when Dr Ruit was training in Australia with Fred, he was living at our home in Randwick, Sydney. We would all sit around the dinner table, discuss our big ideas and imagine the possibilities.”
From those beginnings big things grew. Dr Ruit is now the director of the Tilganga Institute of Ophthalmology in Nepal – a world-class hospital and research institute and a partner of The Fred Hollows Foundation.
In 1992, a gathering of family and friends around that same dinner table was the beginning of The Foundation.
Getting a high out of life
Farnham House also had space for a downstairs workshop so Fred could get stuck into carpentry, one of his great interests. His mother’s family had been in the timber business – her father had been a ‘saw doctor’, keeping the saws sharp, and others on that side were joiners, carpenters and cabinetmakers – so he reckoned woodworking might be in his blood.
Something else he’d inherited was a love of poetry, but it wasn’t until his father was 86 that they discovered their common interest, and he learnt then that his father’s father had loved poetry too.
“When I really want to get a high I read verse,” said Fred. “That’s not the sort of thing that, being in a family of four boys, you normally discuss.”
The other sort of high Fred liked was the adrenalin of mountain climbing, and until the early 1980s he went to New Zealand once a year to climb.
In his later years he and Gabi liked to go bushwalking with the children in the Snowy Mountains and he kept fit by running and cycling in nearby Centennial Park.
Fred loved the outdoors and one of the reasons he liked Farnham House was because it had a tin roof, “the noise of rain on a tin roof when you’re in bed at night is one of the most soothing sounds the world has to offer.”