Nova Scotia

Cape Breton getting new eye doctor, but more needed, says vision advocate

Cape Breton had five ophthalmologists at the beginning of 2019, but now only has two and one of them is leaving. A new eye specialist has just arrived and is welcome, but the Nova Scotia Health Authority needs to keep recruiting, says an advocate for the blind.

People are losing vision, jobs and quality of life, says national president for Canadian Council of the Blind

A new ophthalmologist has been recruited for Cape Breton and while the doctor is welcome, the island needs more eye specialists, says an advocate for the blind. (Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press)

An advocate for the blind is welcoming a new eye surgeon to Cape Breton, but says the Nova Scotia government needs to keep recruiting.

Louise Gillis of Sydney, who is national president for the Canadian Council of the Blind, said the island had five ophthalmologists at the beginning of 2019, but now only has two and one of them is preparing to leave.

She said word of a new eye doctor is great, but more needs to be done.

"It's still not back up to our five," she said. "It is better than it was this time last year, but we have been really hurting."

Many eye patients need regular injections from a doctor and have had to travel to Antigonish or Halifax over the past year or so for treatment, said Gillis.

Not only is that an unexpected financial burden for some, but it affects their quality of life and, in some cases, their employment, she said.

Louise Gillis, national president of the Canadian Council of the Blind, says she recently heard of someone who lost part of their vision because they couldn't afford to travel to Halifax. (Submitted by Louise Gillis)

"We have few enough people working in Cape Breton," Gillis said. "We can't afford to be losing other people who should be able to continue, not because of age but because of eyesight."

As an advocate for people with sight issues, Gillis said she recently heard of someone who lost part of their vision because they couldn't afford to travel to Halifax.

"That's provincially, as well, not only just here in Cape Breton," she said. "This person lived off-island and was not able to travel to Halifax to get the injections that she needed."

Gillis said many people think they won't die if they go blind, but they don't realize how it can affect their finances or quality of life.

"Hopefully, with changes and improvement to our hospital system here, things will get better, so all we can do is be hopeful and look to a better future," she said.

Looking forward to fall

Dr. Kristine Mayer, an eye surgeon and the Nova Scotia Health Authority's division chief of ophthalmology for Cape Breton, said at one point last year, she was the only eye surgeon available locally.

She said since then, another started practising in Cape Breton, a third has just arrived and a fourth is expected to arrive this fall.

"I'm very optimistic about eye care in Cape Breton for the first time, really in years, that we have enough help that everybody should be getting seen in a more timely fashion and getting proper, thorough care," Mayer said.

Most patients were able to receive treatment locally during the last year, she said, but they may have had less time to spend with their eye doctor due to the shortage.

In a few instances, when there was no emergency coverage or on weekends, people might have had to go off-island for treatment, but that was rare, Mayer said.

"They might have started off with treatment in Halifax or Antigonish and then those patients would have been referred back here, though, so I don't think that it's really caused a big gap in their care," she said.

Mayer said she is looking forward to having a full complement of ophthalmologists in Cape Breton this fall. That will ease the doctors' case loads and help patients get better, more personal care, she said.

Doctor could begin practising next week

The health authority said in an email the new eye doctor arrived a couple of weeks ago and has just finished self-isolating.

The authority said if licensing goes smoothly, the new doctor will be based in Sydney and should be practising out of the Glace Bay Hospital's eye clinic sometime next week.

The province's medical recruiting website lists three opportunities for ophthalmologists in Sydney and one each in Middleton and Antigonish.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tom Ayers

Reporter/Editor

Tom Ayers has been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years. He has spent the last 17 years covering Cape Breton and Nova Scotia stories. You can reach him at tom.ayers@cbc.ca.

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