Dr. Jim Farmer

So many good things in life come from being in the right place at the right time. This holds especially true for Dr. Jim Farmer, a busy Ottawa ophthalmologist who, thanks to a quirk of fate, now spends part of every year trekking into Ontario’s far north as part of CNIB’s Eye Van medical team.

Jim Farmer's photo

Farmer, now 52, came to CNIB in 1991, when his life took a rather dramatic turn. “I was working in another ophthalmologist’s office, and he was asked to go up north on the CNIB Eye Van,” Farmer explains. “At the last minute, he wasn’t able to go, and asked me if I would go in his place. I didn’t know anything about the Eye Van at the time.”

Farmer, who describes himself as “very adventurous,” says his first response was, “I’m on board. I’m ready to go.”

And it really was as simple as that. Along with Monique Pilkington, who was beginning her first year as manager of CNIB’s Eye Van program, Farmer and the rest of the Eye Van staff set out on the adventure of a lifetime.

Part of Blindness Prevention

CNIB’s Eye Van, also known as the Ontario Medical Mobile Eye Care Clinic, is a fully-equipped, state-of-the-art medical eye care clinic on wheels. Each year from March to November, it travels more than 6,000 kilometers into remote northern Ontario communities and provides much-needed medical eye care, surgeries and examinations for more than 5,000 patients.

Staffed by a group of 20 participating ophthalmologists (including Dr. Farmer) and aided by two CNIB ophthalmic assistants, it is an integral part of the prevention of blindness program of both CNIB and the Ontario Medical Association.

Farmer provides his services for a week at a time, and typically does two shifts each season. (The Eye Van doesn’t operate during the winter months, because of the dangerous road conditions.) To join up with the team, he flies into the airport nearest the Eye Van’s location at the time, and then drives the rest of the way in a rental car to meet the staff.

They stay in hotels or cottages near the towns where the van is stationed, says Farmer. “And sometimes the Lions, who help fund the Eye Van, have loaned us a house belonging to a service club member who is away on holiday.”

Life in a Small Town – Almost

Working on the Eye Van lets him experience the best of both worlds – rural and urban – and helps him decompress, says Farmer.

For a professional with Farmer’s hectic schedule, this is exactly what the doctor ordered. Although he and his wife, a pediatric disease specialist, live in Ottawa, Farmer also practises in nearby Kingston, Ontario, two days a week. Besides being a father of three kids, he is both an ophthalmologist and an anatomical pathologist (a branch of medicine that involves diagnosing disease through the examination of tissues and cells) – one of only two people in Canada with that dual qualification.

“My wife is from Kenora, and I’m from a town in Ohio with 300,000 people,” says Farmer. “I’ve always envied people who lived in a small town, but my wife hated it. So this is the way we’ve worked it out, without having to actually live or practice in a small town.”

“I know the people in the towns, and find it very rewarding because I’m a very social being,” he says. “I think that people in the south [of Ontario] don’t know what they’re missing. When you go up north, the people aren’t as stressed; I see more healthy elderly people up here.”

Shortage of Health Care

Of course, living in the North has its own set of challenges, which is why the Eye Van is such a necessity. “If you’re ill, the North is a tough place to be,” says Farmer. “You have to travel for hours to get health care.”

There are currently fewer than 15 ophthalmologists for all of Northern Ontario, and Farmer knows most of them. If a town acquires an ophthalmologist of its own, the Eye Van will remove that town from its schedule, and add another community to its roster.

The shortage of eye doctors in northern Ontario reflects the rest of Canada, explains Farmer. “Ophthalmology is a very popular specialty now. But there’s a limited number of training positions, and that’s the bottom line. You can ‘create’ more doctors by attracting more students, but it doesn’t address the problem of training them, of making spaces in teaching centres.”

“I love my job, but I wish it didn’t have to exist,” he says. “It’s a double-edged sword.”

Farmer says he is honoured to be part of the CNIB Eye Van team. “We like what we do. We’re giving back.”

For more information on the CNIB Eye Van, visit http://www.cnib.ca/en/ontario/programs-services/eye-van/Default.aspx.

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