Every year, as many as 14,000 to 15,000 residents around the NWT and Nunavut receive eye care from a traveling band of medical professionals.
Who makes up this team? In honour of White Cane Week, an annual event developed to create awareness of issues that confront the blind and vision-impaired community taking place this year from Feb. 7 to Feb.13, the Journal decided to take a look.
The eye techs, known more professionally as certified ophthalmic medical technicians, work out of the Yellowknife Eye Clinic at Stanton Territorial Hospital.
“There is only one ophthalmologist in the NWT, Dr. Leonard Smith, and he also does the Kitikmeot Region of Nunavut,” said Lynda Healy, one of the eye techs. “Then, there’s 12 of us eye techs that work and are trained under him.”
These care workers are trained to assess eye problems and refer patients to the ophthalmologist for any abnormalities that are detected. They can also write lens prescriptions and perform some medical procedures; Healy said she has pulled metal and wood shards from many eyes in her time.
Every community in the NWT and Nunavut is serviced by one of the nomadic techs, some as often as once a month, others only once a year. It all depends on population size and accessibility.
“We travel once a month and the clinics can range anywhere from four to 10 days,” Healy said. “Between 40 and 100 days a year each tech will travel. In that timeframe, we travel to all of these communities, but we also run our clinic here in Yellowknife where we’re often bringing patients down from other communities that we’ve triaged and have to deal with more testing or the ophthalmologist wants to see them.”
Unlike the rest of Canada, the NWT and Nunavut are serviced by ophthalmologists, not optometrists. An ophthalmologist is a medical doctor first, who specializes in the eye and can perform surgeries. They also treat glaucoma, diabetes, retinal detachment, iritis, retinitis pigmentosa; “every type of pathology of the eye that you can think of,” Healy said.
Alternatively, optometrists are trained to assess eyes and refer patients to ophthalmologists.
The techs have “been trained to a level of a second- or third-year ophthalmology resident in being able to identify different diseases of the eye, so we know what to bring forward to the opthamologist,” Healy said. “Sometimes the public perception is that we’re not as qualified as they are but, as I mentioned before, we work under the direct supervision of an opthamologist. We’re highly trained in a variety of popular diseases and pathologies of the eye, which is really quite important when we’re going into some of these places to be able to see these types of things.”
Eye techs can undergo all of their training through a program offered in Yellowknife.
“It’s a very unique training program as students, within the first two months of the year, are traveling with a senior tech and training right on the job,” Healy noted. “It’s intense, it’s two years, but it’s so rewarding.”
It’s not an easy life sometimes, but the independent nature of the job and the satisfaction that comes with helping others maintain their sense of sight makes it all worth it, Healy said.
“The travel can be quite challenging at times,” she noted. “It takes us two days to get as far North as Resolute Bay. It’s such an independent position that you’re in when you actually get to these places, you do 12-hour days every day and you’re helping members of the community without them having to actually fly elsewhere to get eye service. I think it’s a pretty remarkable part of our healthcare system.”