The patients who come to the Faculty of Medicine’s eye clinic on East Hastings Street have conditions rarely encountered in the rest of Vancouver: repeated eye trauma, damage from HIV-related infections, venereal infections in the eyes, talc from injected cocaine blocking blood vessels. Such is the nature of ophthalmology in the Downtown Eastside.
Compounding the challenge is the outdated clinic’s equipment, with its weak lighting, low magnification, and uncomfortable examination chairs. On top of that, the clinic can accommodate only one patient at a time.
Into this mix of pressing need and limited resources stepped the Mr. and Mrs. P.A. Woodward’s Foundation – the people behind the iconic rooftop “W” sign that remains a landmark for the impoverished neighborhood.
The foundation, created by the proprietor of the department store that once anchored the Downtown Eastside, donated $82,450 to replace the clinic’s lone unwieldy slit lamp and sparsely padded exam chair. The gift will pay for two new lamps and two new exam chairs with integrated instrument stands.
Now, the clinic’s volunteer ophthalmologists will be able to see into the far part of a patient’s retina, and patients will not have to endure neck or back strain during an exam. And the clinic will be able to treat twice as many patients in the same amount of time.
“These people are facing a lot of challenges,” says David Maberley, Head of the Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Science, who opened the clinic as a young assistant professor. “If we can help them see clearly again, it makes a huge difference in their day-to-day lives.”
The late P.A. Woodward, also known as “Puggy” for his pugnacious personality, was an early supporter of the Faculty of Medicine, providing funds for the Woodward Biomedical Library and donating $3.5 million for the P.A. Woodward Health Sciences Centre that housed the library, classrooms and the health care facility that became UBC Hospital.
Since those days, the foundation’s focus has shifted from medical education to medical care. The Downtown Eastside Eye Clinic – which has been staffed almost entirely by faculty members over its 14-year history – was a perfect way for the foundation to connect its original mission to its current one.
“Good eyesight is a determinant of health, like good teeth,” says P.A. Woodward‘s great-nephew Kip Woodward, Chair of the foundation, whose mission is improving the health of British Columbians. “People like David Maberley are real heroes.”
With modern equipment, Dr. Maberley thinks he will be able to interest more of his colleagues in donating their time at the clinic. “I didn’t feel comfortable asking colleagues to volunteer because it’s such a difficult space to work in,” he says. “Once it becomes more functional, we’ll be able to provide the level of care that we’re used to giving all of our patients. So I’m hoping we can double the number of days we’re open.”
The expansion also will enable the clinic to become more of a teaching site, because medical students and ophthalmology residents will be able to see patients in one room while an instructor does the same in an adjoining room.
“Serving neglected populations should be just as much a priority for opthalmologists as it is for other physicians,” Dr. Maberley says. “Now we’ll be able to instill that principle early on.”