Optometrist sees 2020 as right time to retire

Sights set on retirement after 50 years at Killarney Optometric Centre


Growing up as a country boy, Keith Letts expected to see his future roll out in hardware.

Instead, he listened to his big brother, opted for a different road, and became a doctor of optometry. 

And he stayed one for half a century, right here in town, until a very slightly premature retirement, which took place earlier this spring, during the COVID-19 lockdown.

“My dad managed businesses, such as Safeway, and Federated Co-op, and when I was about 14 we moved to Treherne, and he opened a hardware store there, Letts Hardware,” said Keith Letts. “When I was 17, I did a year of sciences at Brandon University, instead of my Grade 12. Then I went to Winnipeg, working as a hardware buying clerk for Federated Co-op. I had grown up working for my dad in the hardware store, so I knew about the business. I was there for about a year.”

Then his older brother Merv, six years his senior, sparked an idea that changed his life.

“He was an orthopaedic surgeon at the Children’s Hospital in Winnipeg, and he suggested optometry,” said Letts. “I looked at it, and I thought it could be interesting, and so I applied to the University of Waterloo in Ontario. And I was accepted. It was pretty exciting, and a little daunting. I was a country boy, going to Toronto.”

Strange and fortunate things began happening even before his arrival in Ontario, however.

“I was sitting with some people on the train, and we were talking, and they said there was another student a few cars down who was going into the same optometry program as me,” said Letts. “I went down to find him, and we ended up being best friends. We even roomed together for the last three years in Waterloo. He is Dr. Don Porter, and I think he still practises in Winnipeg.”

And when the train finally pulled into Toronto, family friends were there to help him navigate the big city.

“Mom and Dad had a connection to a friend in Toronto, and they got a hold of her, and told her I was coming,” said Letts. “And she was waiting at the train station, with a sign that said: ‘LETTS.’ I went over, and said, ‘That’s me!’ They helped me find an apartment, and settle in.”

In those days, it was mostly males taking up the classroom seats, he said.

“I went to the College of Optometry in Toronto for a year, and then they amalgamated with the University of Waterloo,” he said. “The class was about 30 students, mostly men, and three women. Today that has reversed. It’s all women, and just a few men. It’s a great profession for women; it’s clean, it’s fairly regular hours, and it’s challenging. I would encourage young women to consider it. But it’s tough to get in. The standards are really high. And it’s great if rural people go into it, because they are more likely to come back to their rural communities.”

Dr. Letts graduated from the University of Waterloo’s Optometry Program in May of 1970. And in July, at the age of 24, he came to Killarney, joining optometrist Dr. Woody Spearman.

“Woody had started his practise here in 1950,” said Letts. “He joined the Killarney Medical Building in 1967, along with Dr. George Dow, Dr. Mel Woods, Dr. Peter Lommerse, and dentist Dr. Keith Finlay, at 102 Fletcher Street. After the medical clinic moved to the hospital, the Optometric Centre moved to the 405 Broadway location in 2002. The name of the building changed to the Killarney Professional Building, and houses the optometry and dental clinics today.”

Over his five decades, Dr. Letts served for a number of years with the Council of the Manitoba Optometric Society, and was elected as president in 1980. He also served as Manitoba’s representative to the Canadian Association of Optometrists.

In April of 2014, Dr. Candace DeCock and Dr. Dustin McGill partnered to purchase the Killarney Optometric Centre from Dr. Letts, and he continued to work there on a part-time basis.

But in many ways this past year, and what would be his final months as an eye doctor, may prove to be the most memorable of his lifetime, due to the global pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

Letts was expecting to work until the very end of June, to fully complete his 50 years, and also enjoy a great staff party to celebrate the event.

“But my last day was March 16,” he said. “The next week Provincial Health closed down most services, including optometrists, because of COVID-19. It was emergencies only, beginning in early April, and this week (May 19) is just the third week that we have been seeing patients. We are currently running at 50 per cent capacity, with one doctor on each week, rotating between Dr. McGill and Dr. DeCock. Regular check-ups only began two weeks ago. Patients are only being let in to the office by appointment, and we ask them to bring a mask. If they don’t have one, we supply them.”

Dr. Letts, 74, says that the world may remain changed for some time, as we adapt to the on-going pandemic.

“As things open, everything is going to be different,” he said.

A retirement party had been planned for June, said his office staff, but the pandemic threw a massive wrench into those plans, which have now been postponed.

In the meantime, Letts is enjoying the summer weather, and his retirement. 

“It feels great,” he said. “It’s quite an accomplishment. Somewhere down the line I had thought, wouldn’t it be great if I could practise until 2020? I spent my life trying to correct people’s vision to 20:20, and now it’s 2020. It’s been challenging, and so much fun. The staff – half of my waking hours were with my staff, and they are like my family. That’s probably what I will miss the most. People came to us, and stayed with us for decades. I have seen their families grow, their kids graduating, and they are getting married. It’s quite a deal.”

Letts will also miss his role as an eye doctor, he added. He looked forward to going to work every day, and there were always surprises.

“The patients we see have been so good,” he said. “You go to work in the morning, and you don’t know what you will see. People come in with a symptom, and you have to make a diagnosis. It can be challenging. Brain tumours – I saw only two, which was fortunate. Sometimes we are the first to diagnose diabetes, glaucoma, macular degeneration. Patient privacy has always been of paramount concern. What happens in the office stays in the office.”

If he could give advice to the masses, it would be to see an eye doctor as soon as trouble starts, he said.

“Early detection is the key to any health issue,” said Letts. “If you think you have something going on, go and get it checked out. It applies to eyes, and to general health. For example, wet macular degeneration is the worst issue. People can lose their sight in one eye. It is treatable, and you can prevent it from getting worse. And self-medicating for issues is not a good idea.”

Letts added that from childhood to age 18, vision exams are covered by Manitoba Health. From age 18 to 65, people are not covered for vision exams, but once you turn 65, you are covered again, he said.

And medical problems are a separate issue, he added.

“Any eye condition or infection that isn’t vision-related is covered by Manitoba Health,” he said. “If you are 35, and you get a twig in your eye, and you go to the optometrist, you are covered by Manitoba Health for the visit.”

Meanwhile, plans for his retirement include hitting a small white ball, gardening, and enjoying life with his wife Linda and their two adult children.

“I golf,” said Letts. “I have been out a few times already this year. Everybody wants to get out. We are not much for traveling; we like to be home. I help Linda; she is the gardener, and we have lots to do this spring. And we bowl one night a week. Well, we will continue to do that, as long as it opens up.”

Bird carving is also a hobby that Letts has enjoyed for many years.

“I do bird carving in winter,” he said. “I usually do birds, and I just did some animals. I did a squirrel, and it turned out okay. I sell some carvings, but most of them are in the basement. It looks like a bird sanctuary – there are about 30 of them down there. I do songbirds, and some hawks, from patterns in the Wildfowl Carving magazine out of the U.S.”

AN INSIDE LOOK – Dr. Keith Letts, inside one of Killarney Optometric Centre’s four examining rooms. To the left is a phoropter, an instrument used to test individual lenses on each eye during a vision exam. After 50 years of medical practice, Dr. Letts has done his fair share of eye testing! Happy retirement!

A BEAUTIFUL VIEW OF THE WORLD – Dr. Keith Letts is enjoying a sunny retirement, after 50 years of service in Killarney as an optometrist. The eye doctor has been keeping busy at home beautifying the family garden in recent weeks, and in the winter he focuses on woodcarving birds – and sometimes other animals. On the left is an American Kestrel, or sparrow hawk, and on the right is a North American Robin.