Eye Van brings care to underserviced communities

Thanks to the Northern Ontario Eye Van, a 48-foot tractor-trailer with the latest screening technology Northerners in remote communities don’t have to travel eight or nine hours to an urban centre for specialist eye care.

BY NORM TOLLINSKY
It took a family doc serving in Whitedog Falls, 120 kilometres northwest of Kenora, to understand the challenges associated with accessing ophthalmology care in Northern Ontario’s remote communities.
Dr. William Hunter went on to train as an ophthalmologist and through sheer willpower founded an ophthalmology clinic-on-wheels 46 years ago.
Thanks to the Northern Ontario Eye Van – now a 48-foot tractor-trailer with the latest screening technology – Indigenous and non-Indigenous Northerners in remote communities don’t have to travel eight or nine hours to an urban centre for specialist eye care. The CNIB Eye Van comes to them.
Funded by the Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, the North East and North West LHINs and generous donations from private individuals and businesses, the Eye Van makes its way across Northern Ontario from Englehart in the northeast to Rainy River in the northwest and back along Highway 17 to Manitoulin Island with stops in some 30 communities along the way, including Cochrane, Kapuskasing, Hearst, Wawa, Geraldton, Atikokan, Dryden, Kenora, Sioux Lookout and Pickle Lake.
The Eye Van doesn’t make stops in Indigenous communities – the sole exception is Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island – but CNIB staff based in Sudbury keep First Nation nursing stations, clinics, diabetes education programs and optometrists across Northern Ontario informed about the van’s schedule and invites them to co-ordinate referrals for both follow-up and new appointments in a nearby community, said program manager Lisa O’Bonsawin.
If someone just shows up without a referral “and is in need of our services, we would still see them,” she noted. “ We don’t want to turn anyone away.”

“We perform a complete screening or examination of ocular health, including vision screening, pressures, field of vision and eye movement. We can also do minor surgeries and procedures, including laser treatment for different types of glaucoma and post-cataract surgery.”
Lisa O’Bonsawin, Program Manager, CNIB Eye Van

Two nurses trained in ophthalmology care, a program assistant and an ophthalmologist staff the van. The nurses and the program assistant are required to have a Class AZ driver’s licence and take turns driving the behemoth from place to place, while some 25 ophthalmologists from all over Ontario and beyond take turns doing one week rotations in the communities along the way.
“We perform a complete screening or examination of ocular health, including vision screening, pressures, field of vision and eye movement,” said O’Bonsawin. “We can also do minor surgeries and procedures, including laser treatment for different types of glaucoma and post-cataract surgery.
“There are also occasions when a doc will perform surgery in hospital if there is an immediate need.”
The CNIB has a close relationship with volunteers from service clubs – usually Lions, Rotary clubs or Legions – who help prepare for the Eye Van’s arrival, greet patients and make the staff feel comfortable, hosting them for a barbecue or even taking them out fishing.
Every year, said O’Bonsawin, the Eye Van serves approximately 4,500 Northerners.

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