On the ground

Coronavirus: on the ground in Oban

John Wallace opened his practice on the day he qualified 43 years ago. He talks about the impact of the pandemic in an area that serves the Hebrides

UK map Oban

As the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic transforms the way optometrists practise, OT is sharing the experiences of optometrists across the UK. If you, or a colleague, is interested in sharing your story please get in touch by email.  

I’ve worked in Oban for 43 years in a practice that I opened the day I qualified. Oban has a population of around 12-13,000 people and we serve an area with a population of around 25,000. It is a major port for the north west coast of Scotland. We cover most of the Inner and some of the Outer Hebrides.

We are closed. I personally am having to shield because my health is not particularly good, so I am out of the business for three months. We are still doing repairs and triaging folk by video from home.

It has been an interesting learning curve. Some of the technology I am familiar with, and some of it my support staff have been using previously. I am having to learn fairly rapidly and it has certainly had its challenges. You have to stop and think about how you talk to and assess patients. One patient phoned up complaining of visual distortion that was changing. Sitting there, talking to him and going through our triage process, I came to the conclusion that it was likely to be a retinal detachment. I emailed him a Snellen chart so he was able to give me his visual acuity. I explained to his wife how to conduct a visual fields test. I then got in touch with a consultant at our nearest Emergency Eyecare Treatment Centre. The patient had to travel down to the centre for treatment, which is 90 miles away in Glasgow. He had emergency surgery for a retinal detachment. I spoke to him the other day and he is on the road to recovery. He was very grateful because he could have lost the sight in the eye.

I feel a responsibility to look after my patients. Most of them I have known for years and years


We are a couple of weeks behind the rest of the UK in terms of the gardening season because we are quite far north, but as time goes on we might see an increase in those types of injuries. I’ve heard from one man who had grass seed in his eye.

I feel a responsibility to look after my patients. Most of them I have known for years and years. I think we have a duty to them. It is not much fun if you can’t see your computer screen or the telly, especially when you can’t venture outside or meet people face to face. With a lot of folk, if you can reassure them that helps. You might say ‘Ok, you’ve got cataracts but you’re not going to go blind in the next two to three months.’ Giving them peace of mind makes a big difference.

My wife and son, who both work at the practice, and my dispensing optician have all had to be furloughed. We have effectively shut down until it passes over. We are lucky in Scotland because we have an average monthly General Ophthalmic Services payment coming in that will help. The lockdown has given me a chance to catch up on all my paperwork, which is quite good. There are pluses and minuses.

We are getting phone calls every day from folk who have broken their glasses. We are arranging to have them put their glasses through the letter box, we fix the spectacles for them and then arrange for them to be posted out or picked up. We are trying to minimise patient contact. Labs have been shut down so we can’t always get what we want in terms of lenses. Thankfully it has been mainly frame repairs, which we can do in-house. Everything that comes in is cleaned before we work on it.

When lockdown eases, I don’t know how it will work for people like myself who are meant to be isolating for 12 weeks. I am a sole practitioner and you can’t get locums in this part of the world. That is a big difficulty. There are locums in Glasgow and Edinburgh but they don’t want to travel two hours out of the city. I am beginning to wonder if I am actually going to get back to work before Christmas. I’m lucky that I can retire but I don’t want to. I still enjoy practising.

• As told to Selina Powell.