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Blindness a threat for Prince George residents after retina disease treatment cut

The BC Retina Disease Treatment Program is ending as of March 31, leaving those affected scrambling for ways to get the cash to fund the eyesight-saving treatment they need.
Christina Watts, artist from Prince George, talks about how cuts to the BC Retina Disease Treatment Program will affect the future of her eyesight.

As she sat on her couch tuned into the news to hear the words ‘everyone will get the healthcare they need’ during the provincial budget this week, the heart-breaking irony was not lost on Christina Watts.

The 45-year-old Prince George resident had just received a letter from the only retina specialist north of Kamloops, telling her that the eyesight-saving injections she gets every month will no longer be covered under the BC Retina Disease Treatment Program as of March 31.

Watts is a prominent local artist who knows she won’t be able to keep paying out-of-pocket for the very expensive and painful injections that cost about $1,700 each to prevent complete blindness in her left eye.

“I will just have to let go of my sight in my left eye,” Watts said.

She lost her central vision in that eye in January and now only sees on the periphery.

Watts has a retinal disease called wet macular degeneration, which is the leading cause of blindness, typically in people 50 years and older.

“Right now I am still adjusting,” she said. “I am just making those changes. So I have increased my text size on my computers, when I am teaching art I have to use high contrast, I go to cut a garlic clove on my white cutting board and I can’t see what I’ve sliced because there is no contrast – there’s something going on with my right eye too so clearly I am very mindful of things so I don’t drive in the dark, and there’s just a bunch of changes because of the big blind spot in my left eye. For me as a teacher, as an artist, it’s a real blow, like what now?”

The treatments are already helping her see better peripherally and that’s after only the second treatment.

“I’ve also noticed the grey mass in my central vision is now blurred so that I can see colour and something is better than nothing,” she said.

If the government does not reinstate the program, there will be a lapse in treatment that Watts said she fears would be a massive setback that she might not recover from.

“I wonder if the government has considered the costs of then having to pay me under disability for the rest of my life along with all the other programs and aids I'll need,” Watts said. “Never mind the difficult personal and family impacts while I raise my two children that go along with this. I can't imagine what others affected by this cut are going to do."

Barry Smith, 59, has ischemic central retinal vein occlusion (CRVO) that prevents blood flow to his left eye and causes vision impairment.  He’s had this condition for the last two years and gets monthly injections to control the swelling of his eyeball. There is no cure and the injections cost about $500 each.

“I have a loss of about 75 per cent in my left eye and it’s almost like looking through wax paper,” Smith said. “I have no clear vision at all and I can’t see anything within three feet of me. I can hold my hand up and not see my wedding ring right in front of my face. So my right eye has to take over so it’s more of a brain straining thing and it throws off my perception as well as my balance. I was an avid motorcycle rider for years and I had to give that up this past summer.”

Smith retired two years ago so he is on a fixed income while his wife still works.

“Bottom line is that if I have to pay for this expensive shot I won’t be getting them,” Smith said. “The pressure keeps building in my eye so I don’t know if I stop getting those injections if that means the extraction of the eye. I hope not but I know there’s a lot of seniors out there that will be affected by this. This could be a real financial drain on people, especially seniors, and the way things are going right now it’s just an added burden. We all need to reach out to our MP and premier and health minister to see what we can do about it.”

Peter Fletcher is a Prince George senior with diabetic macular edema, where blood vessels are causing pressure on his retina.

“This is going to affect so many seniors,” Fletcher said.

Fletcher has been getting injections in his right eye every four or five weeks since 2010. The injections cost about $1,500 each.

“My degeneration has continued over time and now I am getting injections in both eyes every six to seven weeks,” Fletcher explained. “And if I don’t get these injections I will go blind.”

Fletcher will be reaching out with letters to local politicians and the ministry of health to protest the end of the BC Retina Disease Treatment Program.

Fletcher said the cost of the consequences of ceasing the program far outweigh the cost of its continuation and he hopes the government will reconsider its choice.