Residents angry Horizon didn't renew popular Woodstock eye doctor's contract

·5 min read
Peopls like Jean Reed in the Upper St. John River Valley area can't get answers about why Woodstock ophthalmologist River Kattan's contract was not renewed. (Mrinali Anchan/CBC - image credit)
Peopls like Jean Reed in the Upper St. John River Valley area can't get answers about why Woodstock ophthalmologist River Kattan's contract was not renewed. (Mrinali Anchan/CBC - image credit)

At the age of 78, Jean Reed tries her best to live life on her own terms.

The Knowlesville woman lives 26 kilometres east of Florenceville-Bristol, with her dog, Dandy, and cat, Spike, in a home she and her family built from the ground up in an area with no cell reception, surrounded by steep, forested hills.

While she manages as best she can, she needs cataract surgery and was devastated when a procedure scheduled for Sept. 14 was cancelled. Horizon Health had not renewed her eye doctor's contract.

"It would just change my life," Reed said of the surgery.

Mrinali Anchan/CBC
Mrinali Anchan/CBC

She was diagnosed in January with cataracts and was told a new ophthalmologist, Dr.River Kattan, would be able to do the surgery at the Upper River Valley Hospital in Waterville, just north of Woodstock, a manageable distance from Reed's home .

But on Sept. 10, the hospital called Reed to cancel.

"They gave me no reason and they did not reschedule it, and they wouldn't tell me anything else," Reed said.

"My niece, my only relative in Canada, lives and works in Ottawa, and she took time off from work to come and be here so I would have somebody to help me drive me home after the surgery."

Dr. Ed Schollenberg, the registrar for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick, said Kattan won't be able to practise in New Brunswick after October. He said he had not heard any concerns about her abilities or practice.

The reason a province desperate for doctors isn't trying to hold on to Kattan, a popular ophthalmologist, is a mystery, and Horizon Health and the Department of Health aren't throwing any light on it.

Reed has also tried to get answers from MLAs, Health Minister Dorothy Shephard, and the College of Physicians and Surgeons of New Brunswick.

After her operation was cancelled, Reed talked to Kattan in her office, which is where she learned the doctor's contract was not renewed.

"She was really upset," Reed said. "I was really upset."

No complaints about services

More than 1,100 patients are affected by the loss of Kattan's services.

Dr. Michael Perley, the chief of staff at Horizon's Upper River Valley Hospital, suggested in an emailed statement to CBC News that Kattan's position was always temporary.

"Horizon often uses locums as a means of temporarily filling vacant positions within our organization until a permanent physician can be found," he said in a statement sent on his behalf. "We are fully committed to ensuring ophthalmology services will continue to be delivered in the Upper River Valley area."

But Perley would not say if a replacement had been found or if such a person would practise in Woodstock and Upper River Valley Hospital, as Kattan did.

Mrinali Anchan/CBC
Mrinali Anchan/CBC

He also didn't answer questions about Kattan's practice or why it wasn't renewed.

Reed was impressed with Kattan.

"She seemed to ask all the right questions … I really appreciated that because so often the doctors get busy and they try and get the next patient in, and I got the feeling that she was taking the time she needed and the time I needed."

The phone line to Kattan's office has been disconnected.

But according to patients and an optometrist reached by CBC News, Kattan worked under a contract that was reviewed every three months. She had her own practice in Woodstock with staff and had settled into the area and bought a home.

'Shocking' need for specialists

Harvey Bass, the past president of the New Brunswick Association of Optometrists, said the decision to end Kattan's contract despite a dire need for eye specialists is "shocking," and he is now faced with the task of determining how to refer a large number of patients to a small pool of doctors.

"There's 1,100 patients that are now displaced, I've got a stack of files, [and] I honestly don't know where I'm going to be sending them."

Aging patients should not be travelling long distances to see a specialist, he said.

As for Kattan's service, Bass said she was skilled treating cataracts, glaucoma and certain eyelid procedures and did retina work, among other procedures — all good assets to have.

Bass was concerned that something else, other than her practice, was at play in the contract decision.

"Is it because she's a very outspoken woman and she's a woman of colour? … All of those things concern me greatly. This is a very male-dominated profession. Why has she not been given that position when she's set up a practice and already has it going?"

Other people besides Kattan and her patients are affected, Bass said, citing two staff members.

"They're terrified. They both gave up jobs to go here to work with her."

Now that eye surgeon William Goodine has also reduced his surgery in Waterville, Bass is concerned this area of practice will be removed from the Upper St. John River Valley and shipped to Fredericton.

Mrinali Anchan/CBC
Mrinali Anchan/CBC

Carleton MLA Bill Hogan said at least 30 constituents contacted him about Kattan's departure. Hogan said Horizon told him there will be an ophthalmologist at the Upper River Valley Hospital from Monday to Friday, as well as on-call.

Oakland resident Carl Ogden said Kattan cleared up a scare he had with glaucoma a few months ago, and he is among those outraged she can't stay.

"We're going to have no eye specialist in the area, and everyone from Plaster Rock clear up to the upper valley is going to have to do their travelling to Fredericton, when there's more than ample enough work for her to take care of the people," Ogden said.

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