On the Road with the CNIB Eye Van – Part 3

5/2/2017

What does your sight mean to you? For most, it is likely your most prized sense. In fact, over my career in vision care, I have heard countless patients either validate their angst about eye exams, justify the cost of eye protection or emphasize their promptness for appointments with the simple, yet accurate phrase, “it’s my eyes, so it’s important!”

It’s actually quite interesting that regardless of how important other physiological systems are to ensuring our vitality, we still tend to give priority to a system that doesn't actually keep us alive. After all, our heart and lungs should be considered to have the hierarchy when it comes to human survival. But, as a society, we still consume fatty foods, neglect exercise, and smoke cigarettes - activities which we know are proven to be detrimental. We seem to prioritize our ability to fully appreciate our surroundings rather than emphasizing the importance of longevity and the opportunity to experience more. Perhaps it boils down to the quality of the experience over the quantity of experiences.

Regardless of the reason, most of us are rarely forced into making a choice when it comes to our health. The majority of us in Ontario have access to any type of health care we require. Granted, some would argue that wait times and the physician shortages sour the experience, but most of us don't have to choose between our eyes, heart, lungs or other parts while allowing the others to weather away.

Unfortunately, this is not necessarily the case for those residing in the remote areas of rural Northern Ontario. As my travels with the CNIB Eye Van continue north on Highway 11 and we begin to venture further and further from the larger demographic areas of Timmins and Sudbury, a common theme is beginning to arise. Folks must truly decide which aspect of their health is a priority; often, residents are neglecting other ailments which allow them to progress beyond repair.

In this seemingly parallel universe, people are forced to re-evaluate priority, and choose to pursue treatment for longevity rather than convenience. With mounting wait times and climbing costs of travel, the grim reality is that many must chose to treat heart, lungs or other over their eyes and sight. Fittingly, the return to primal instincts and symbiosis with nature which northern life promises brings the return to basic survival: life over convenience. But, there's a shred of hope - a shining light of promise piercing through the dense cover of the boreal forests. It is, as you’ve undoubtedly guessed, the CNIB Eye Van. 

For 45 years, residents of communities along the northern stretch of the Trans Canada route have been afforded the peace of mind of knowing their ocular health will not go untreated. Thanks to this marvelous program, these patients not only have access to world class eye care, it comes to them in the comfort of their own communities - their sight is no longer relegated to being a convenience; it is now and will continue to be a priority.

A wonderful example of this is Elizabeth from Cochrane. When I met her a couple of weeks ago, this 92-year-old grandmother of 14 already had her vision stripped from her due to age-related macular degeneration. It was as though the universe had decided that she somehow had seen enough for her lifetime and should now proceed in darkness. As I spoke to her about her condition, I could not help but imagine what she must be enduring. Without warning, a feeling of regret began to take hold of me; we could have done more, perhaps we were failing.

But, before I could continue my downward spiral of sadness and regret, Elizabeth softly eased my mind with a much more inspiring tale. She told me that her loss of vision had been the culmination of many years of battling this horrible disease. After more than a decade of seemingly endless treatments and shadows of uncertainty, her eyes had finally succumbed to their relentless attacker. However, if not for those treatments, she would have been blind 20 years earlier! Those two decades granted her the joy of knowing her grandchildren and watching them grow. 

How did she come to learn that her sight was under attack that faithful day more than 20 years ago? Who aided her in pursuing treatment and continued to monitor her progress every April? You’ve guessed it, the CNIB Eye Van!

As though she knew that I needed some parting wisdom to steer my mind on a more optimistic path she professed: “Now, when I close my eyes, I see all of my beautiful grandchildren. Those memories will be with me until the end of my days. If not for the Eye Van, this would never have been the case.  For that, I will always be grateful for all of your sacrifices.”

That comment has stuck with me ever since. I’m sure you can agree that Elizabeth’s account is a beautiful story which serves testament to the successful of this venture. However, it is something more specific in her vernacular which I find poignant; the notion of “sacrifice”. Since the beginning of this voyage, I have had others marvel at the “sacrifice” we must make in order to provide care to those in rural Ontario. In fact, some people seem to adopt an air of grievance when we mention how long it has been since we've seen our families. And, I must admit, I've been guilty of referring to my personal sacrifices in previous posts; openly confessing that my heart grows heavier with every passing moment without my wife and children. However, when the sacrifices of yourself and others contribute to the preservation of 20 years of sight for a loving grandmother, does this sacrifice not seem justified? After all, what would you sacrifice for 20 more years of priceless memories?

With all of this is mind, I return to the question I asked from the beginning of this entry: “what does your sight mean to you?” With a bit more perspective, perhaps you can consider what it means to you and those living in other parts of this wonderful province. You will likely come to the same conclusions as I have; when it comes to enjoying the beauties of life, no sacrifice should be too great.

Read Part 4

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