x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Keeping an eye on the future

Dr Chris Canning came to the UAE three years ago to establish a branch of Moorfields, the world-famous eye hospital.

After a slow start, the Moorfields eye hospital in Dubai is flourishing under the stewardship of Dr Chris Canning.
After a slow start, the Moorfields eye hospital in Dubai is flourishing under the stewardship of Dr Chris Canning.

Chris Canning will never forget the first patient who came through the door of Moorfields Eye Hospital when it opened in Dubai Healthcare City two years ago this month. "He had been waiting for weeks, a bit like the queue on the pavement outside Wimbledon," said Dr Canning, the chief executive and medical director of the famous London eye hospital's UAE branch. "Our first patient in Dubai, whom we now call Mr 001, had come over from Somalia and was not going home until he saw me. "He had heard that the hospital was going to open and just got the timing a bit wrong." It marked the first time a branch of the National Health Service in Britain had opened a hospital abroad - a project that was a leap in the dark for the organisation and staff alike. But the appearance of "Mr 001" was a sign that the gamble might pay off. Dr Canning was born in Cape Town in 1952. After school he went to the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, graduating with a degree in medicine in 1975. After a start in cardiology, he switched to ophthalmology because "it is part physician and part surgical. There are a lot of diseases in the rest of the body that affect the eyes, and so I thought this would be a good compromise between a surgical career and a medical career. I've been delighted with it. I have to say it's a great job." Being a doctor, he said, "is a comfortable financial arrangement combined with an extremely satisfying job, because you are dealing with people more or less at their most vulnerable and you can really make a difference." He and his wife, Carol, a nurse, moved to the UK in 1980 after "travelling around Europe and doing the usual things that young people do". He began his ophthalmology studies at Oxford, where he spent two years as a senior house officer and registrar at the Oxford Eye Hospital. Next stop was Moorfields in London, where he worked as a registrar and senior registrar and trained in vitroretinal surgery - operations that correct conditions afflicting the retina, such as retinal detachment and diabetic retinopathy. After nine months as a locum consultant, in 1989 he got a post as a consultant at the Southampton Eye Hospital on the south coast. He spent 16 years there and discovered he shared the locals' love of the sea: "Yes, I did a bit of sailing. We lived in Lymington, Hampshire, and of course if you don't sail in Lymington you've really got nothing to talk about." For more than a decade, they were active members of the Royal Lymington Yacht Club, where his wife served as a committee member, ran junior sailing and qualified as an instructor for the national Royal Yachting Association. The couple's first child, Andrew, now 27, was born in Oxford in 1981, a year after they arrived in the UK; Neale, now 24, followed in London in 1985. Andrew is a civil engineer and Neale is in the banking sector. "I'm not sad about it; we gave them a free choice. I would have been pleased if they had done medicine, but kids have to make their own mind up, and they have both found niches that suit them very well." The Dubai project was approved by the Moorfields board in London in December 2005. "I was phoned by one of my senior colleagues at Moorfields to ask did I want the job. "We thought about it for a while, could see it was a challenge, that it was new and exciting, and we certainly wouldn't be bored." Before they decided, he and Carol flew out for the first time for a long weekend at the end of 2005. "To be honest, when my colleague called I had no idea where Dubai was. I knew it was in the Gulf but I didn't even know which country it was in." By the end of the weekend, they were sold: "We were fascinated by the place. It's got that New York sort of energy about it, that buzz and the can-do. "There was a feeling that things were happening here and happening quickly. It was innovating and stimulating." Dr Canning joined the project in June 2006 and moved over full time in October 2006. "At that stage the building we are in was out of the ground but it was a long way from being finished. "We had to get up and running, designing and fitting it out and getting all the equipment and staff." That took until April. "We were really ready to open in May 2007, but the experience of anyone who builds buildings around here is that getting the electricity and the telecoms, air-conditioning and the water sorted out can take a while." In the end, they saw their first patient, Mr 001, on July 4. After a slow summer start, the branch has gone from strength to strength. There are now 29 staff members, and a fourth consultant will be joining soon. Moorfields has expansion plans, particularly in Abu Dhabi, where the hospital already holds clinics twice a week at the Imperial College London diabetes centre. Patients come from all over the region: Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Pakistan. "The name Moorfields means something and the fact that we've established this as a direct branch, with the same governance, the same staffing, the same standards, means that they can trust that this is going to be similar to Moorfields in London. Once they get here it's up to us to prove it." Dr Canning divides his time among four days of clinical work - three for outpatients, one for theatre; his surgical specialities are retinal and cataract - and one of administration. At a typical day clinic in Abu Dhabi, he might see 25 to 30 patients. For the doctors, the UAE has presented some interesting clinical challenges, among them the retinal problems related to the high local prevalence of diabetes. There are other uniquely prevalent conditions, too. "We see a lot of a condition called keratoconus, which is where the cornea becomes more stretchy than normal and bends out of shape, which we see much less often in the UK. "Finding out why is the purpose of one of our research projects, to see if there is a genetic cause or something to with the climate here, or a combination of both." Until the couple left the UK in 2007, Carol had been running a respiratory unit in Lymington. "It's been a bit of a wrench for her, actually, because she had a very responsible full-time job and she hasn't worked since she's been here. "But now she has the freedom to get back to the UK as and when the kids need her, and we've got a grandchild now, so she's able to keep the family ties going." And she has time to continue with the volunteer work she did in the UK, helping organise sailing for the disabled in modified dinghies at Dubai Offshore Sailing Club. Both Dr Canning and his wife have done what they can to integrate and learn more about society in the UAE, and he said he would recommend that approach to any expatriate. "It is very easy to waft through your time here and have nothing at all to do with the local population. "You can live in an expatriate bubble and you don't see them. I'm in a fortunate position in that 80 per cent of our patients are locals and only 20 per cent expatriates, so I get a very heavy exposure here in my clinical work. "If you don't engage because you know you are going to be leaving soon, I can understand that, but it's a shame because you are missing out on so much." For him, coming to Dubai has challenged "cultural stereotypes we all have about Arabs and Islam; it's allowed us to see first-hand how things really are, which makes one less tolerant of some of the political and media material that comes out of Europe." But it's not all about work and cultural insights; there's also the Dubai lifestyle. "We do try to get to cultural activities - it is amazing how much goes on in Dubai. "The trick is to stay alert and get involved early; most shows are only here for a couple of days." And, as keen sailors, the sailing club was one of the first ports of call for the couple when they arrived. They now have their own boat, a 9.7-metre Beneteau Oceanis, which they bought here, complete with its own mooring. They sail all year round, no matter how hot it gets, taking advantage of a secret not well known to landlubbers: offshore, it is cooler. Now living in a rented villa in Umm Suqeim, they will shortly be moving into a villa at Victory Heights, on the Els Club golf course at Dubai Sports City. Although their initial commitment to the project was five years, the Cannings have not yet decided how long they will stay in the UAE. "That," he said, "depends how good the skiing is in Lebanon." jgornall@thenational.ae