Nurses on wheels

by Steven Macleod

SUDBURY, Ont. – Darla Pfahler and Jennifer Philp teamed up in March to be the driving force behind a program offering eye care service to remote communities in Northern Ontario.

The CNIB operates its mobile eye care unit out of a 48-foot trailer, attached to a brand new 2007 International 4400.

Expanding their skill sets, the two nurses turned truck drivers are relishing the adventure to commandeer the Eye Van and an opportunity to explore Ontario’s northern region.

Pfahler has been a registered nurse since 1995 and moved to Ontario to join the Eye Van team three years ago. In the midst of her fourth season driving the Eye Van, Pfahler has become the longest serving driver the program has ever had.

“It’s a unique way of nursing. I don’t know too many nurses that get a chance to do this work,” she said. “I love it, it’s going to be hard to quit one year. I agreed to come on next year and they’ve never had a staff nurse stay past three years, so that tells you how much I enjoy it.”

Initially, Pfahler was a bit apprehensive about taking on the job. Moving out from Alberta was one thing, but driving a big rig seemed like a daunting task.

“I watched the semis going down the highway and I thought, ‘Oh my God, I have to drive one of those things!'” she told Truck News. “Turns out to be one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. You feel very proud driving the truck, partly because our program is unique and we’re serving the North. And it’s good to know other truckers acknowledge us. We get waves and smiles from other truckers and it feels good to be part of the trucking community.”

Pfahler did her Class A/Z training during a snowstorm in – 40C conditions, which helped her feel more comfortable behind the wheel during the less extreme Eye Van season.

Another benefit Pfahler is relishing in her role of truck driver is being high up in the cab and able to take in the surrounding view.

“When you’re driving a truck you see a lot more of the area and the North is so beautiful,” explained Pfahler.

The driving experience allows Pfahler to see plenty of Northern Ontario as the Eye Van makes stops in 30 different communities during its eight-month season.

The CNIB mobile eye care unit began in 1972 in the confines of a Winnebago camper van purchased with a grant from the Physicians’ Services Incorporated (PSI) Foundation. The operation moved into a five-tonne truck with a custom designed box in 1980, but after nine years of demanding service it was decided a new advanced Eye Van would be needed. After a successful fundraising campaign an innovative trailer was designed and attached to a Ford three-quarter-tonne truck. In a devastating turn of events, the truck and trailer caught fire while on route and eventually burned to the ground, after only two years of service.

After an extensive fundraising campaign, CNIB was able to replace the trailer and the truck, but this time with a little bit more power.

“As far as truck requirements went, we felt the old truck was underpowered to haul this unit; but what do I know about buying a truck?” said Monique Pilkington, manager of the CNIB Ontario Mobile Eye Care Unit Program.

With the idea of upgrading to a semi truck, Pilkington looked to get purchasing advice from a long-time supporter of the program at Manitoulin Transport.

Doug Smith, CEO with Manitoulin, was one of three corporate campaign chairs for the fundraising campaign and under his direction, CNIB’s new Eye Van became a 1993 International 4700.

Located in Gore Bay, Ont. on Manitoulin Island, the transport company operates from Moncton, N.B. to Inuvik, N.W.T. However, with its roots in Northern Ontario the transport company can keep a close eye on the CNIB truck in case it runs into trouble.

“We have terminals in practically every town they stop in, so on the rare occasion they get into trouble we have someone within 50 miles,” noted Greg Bond, assistant CEO with Manitoulin.

As well as providing insight into truck purchases, providing a toll-free contact number for emergencies and aiding in maintenance work on the truck, Manitoulin also provides the training for the nurses’ foray into truck driving.

“They have pretty good success. They come in knowing it’s part of the job and come in with a pretty positive attitude,” said Bond. “In the time we’ve been doing it I think we’ve trained about a dozen nurses and we’ve never had one that failed.”

“They’re our lifeline on the road,” added Pilkington. “I don’t know how we could run this program without that kind of support.”

The Eye Van program visits 30 remote communities across Northern Ontario between March and November every year. The 48-foot trailer is a clinic on wheels and is used to examine about 5,000 patients per year.

Designed in consultation with doctors and CNIB staff, the trailer has an office and waiting area, a preliminary vision screening area and a doctor’s examination room. The trailer is also equipped with a reinforced floor and corner stabilizers, and a hydraulic leveling system that allows delicate eye procedures to be performed safely.

About 20 ophthalmologists volunteer each year for one-week periods on the Eye Van. The two trucking nurses are on-board for the entire eight-month stretch and travel roughly 6,000 kilometres, staying in each community for about a week at a time.

“It’s incredibly essential to the residents of the North. Many of the conditions if left undetected would lead to blindness,” explained the program manager. “So it’s really the prevention of blindness program. Hopefully we get to these people before they need the CNIB, but if they do they are referred to the nearest CNIB office to provide the services for the client to lead an independent and productive life.”

With 10 years of service under the hood of the 1993 International, the organization knew its end was drawing near and undertook a fundraising campaign to replace the semi truck.

“When we first purchased the truck Manitoulin told us we would never run out the engine,” noted Pilkington. “But after 10 years it would be more expensive to repair and would not be as reliable. Because we work in remote areas if we ever had a breakdown it would really be difficult for us.”

After a few years of fundraising, CNIB was finally able to raise the necessary funds and received a new 2007 International 4400 in time for the 2006 Eye Van tour. The delivery of the new truck was a welcome addition for this year’s Eye Van.

“This one’s like a Rolls Royce compared to our other one. Both were automatics, but there’s a much bigger engine in this one and we can actually accelerate going uphill now,” added Pfahler. “It’s nice to know the transmission won’t go. We broke down about two or three times last year and Manitoulin was great at bailing us out. It’s great to know we don’t have that worry this year.”

Half of the credit for being able to purchase a new truck for the Eye Van program can be shared with the residents it serves. The Eye Van doctors contributed $25,000 and the PSI Foundation matched the doctors’ donations and also pledged $25,000. The other $50,000 investment was put up through the townships, municipalities, corporations and service clubs in the communities the project visits.

“There was a real outpour of concern from the people of Northern Ontario,” noted Pilkington. “We received lots of calls to see if they could help. The communities are our partners and they work hard to support us.”

The vast amount of support from the Northern communities has been evident to Philp during her first year behind the wheel of the Eye Van.

“In some communities they’re waiting for us and they come and help us set up,” said the registered practical nurse. “They will also come out at the end and help us take everything down. They are all very supportive and want to lend a hand, especially in the winter months.”

The whole trucking nurse experience has been an enjoyable one for Philp and she credits her training to a smooth
transition to the highway.

“The training was great. I was very fortunate to have a one-on-one instructor for three weeks,” she noted.

But even with the extended training and personal attention, there are some things that just take practice, and Philp is planning on getting more practice next year behind the wheel of the new truck as well.

“From school to driving by myself, you don’t have the instructor there helping,” explained Philp. “It’s one thing to back up in an empty parking lot, it’s quite different when there’s trees and having to parallel park beside a building.”

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