Volunteer-run project offers free eye care in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside
Published Monday, December 16, 2019 7:12AM PST
VANCOUVER -- It's been nine years since Tony Pruden had his eyes checked. For nearly a decade, the 54-year-old has been wearing a pair of glasses with progressive trifocal lenses that he won in a contest.
His prescription has changed since then, he said, but he hasn't been able to afford a new pair.
“I don't see well at all, even with them on. But I'm way worse if I didn't have them,” Pruden said as he waited in line at an eye clinic at the Salvation Army in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside on Sunday.
In about two weeks, Pruden will come back to pick up new frames and lenses tailored to his needs thanks to The Eyeglasses Project, a volunteer-run organization founded early last year.
“I'm kind of at a low point in my life and this is definitely a step up, so I can see what's going on around my world,” Pruden said.
Another client said he has also gone nearly a decade without an eye checkup and has been relying on glasses from the dollar store.
Most people take access to eye care and glasses for granted, said Abbotsford optometrist Dr. Harbir Sian, who oversaw the clinic on Sunday.
But for those who can't readily access an optometrist or afford new glasses, “it really can mean the difference between getting a job, being able to read (and) to do the basic functions they need in day-to-day life,” he said.
Many people don't realize how bad their eyes are and simply adapt, Sian said.
“It's pretty surprising when somebody puts their first pair of glasses on. They don't realize what they have been missing - literally what they were not able to see.”
Just under 100 people pre-registered through the Salvation Army for the four-hour clinic on Sunday, said Howard Ma, who founded The Eyeglasses Project.
“I know that if I broke my glasses or lost my contact lenses, I might as well stay in bed. I can't function without them,” he said, noting that he has worn glasses since he was five years old.
The financial analyst said he has astigmatism and requires a complex prescription. He was thinking about getting himself a new pair of glasses when he began wondering how people who can't afford them cope.
There are a few organizations in Vancouver that provide people in need with eyeglasses, Ma said, but they serve a small number of people infrequently. He founded The Eyeglasses Project to fill the gap.
Ma reached out to Sian and the first mobile clinic took place in March 2018 at the Downtown Eastside Neighbourhood House, offering free basic eye care and prescription glasses for 50 seniors.
Since then, Ma said there have been eight similar clinics in neighbourhoods around Vancouver. Going forward, he said he hopes to hold clinics roughly once a month.
The first step at the clinic is checking the patients' visual acuity, or how well they are able to see when they come in, said Sian.
Next, patients get an estimate of their prescription and optometrists check the pressure in their eyes, which Sian said can be an indicator of glaucoma.
Optometrists add eye drops that dilate the patients' pupils in order to check for ocular diseases such as cataracts and macular degeneration, said Sian.
“There are also systemic diseases that we can pick up by looking in the eyes, like blood pressure and diabetes,” he said, adding that his clinic makes referrals to different specialists as needed.
The rate of ocular disease is “always a little higher” among people whose eyes who have not been checked regularly, Sian said.
“When you're in a position when you can't afford the care or don't have access to it, you put up with something a lot longer.”
The final step is the most exciting, said Sian. That's when patients get to choose their frames.
In order to offer more frequent clinics and expand to other communities in the Lower Mainland, The Eyeglasses Project is looking for more optometrists, volunteers and optometry equipment providers to come on board, said Ma.
So far, he said, they have fundraised and received donations from two Lions Club chapters and other local organizations.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 16, 2019.