More than 39 million people live with blindness worldwide, and yet 32 million of those cases are completely treatable and preventable. The figures are shocking and frustrating, especially when you consider that often all it takes is a simple 20-minute operation to restore a person’s sight. Unsurprisingly, 90 percent of the world’s visually impaired live in developing countries, so the question is how to reach them and local doctors to help them.
The idea for the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital came to life in the 1970s when concerned leaders from both the medical and aviation industries decided to join forces to create a mobile teaching hospital. Doctors and nurses from developing countries are rarely able to participate in overseas training programs due to the high costs of tuition, international travel and accommodation, so the idea was to take surgical knowledge and expertise, equipment and training directly to them.
The Flying Eye Hospital
Now on its third airplane, Orbis International has flown to over 92 countries since its first flight in 1982. In 2015 alone, Orbis’s team of volunteer ophthalmologists trained 30,326 medical professionals, and carried out 2.13 million screenings and examinations on the Flying Eye Hospital and in Orbis’s partner institutions.
The beauty of restoring the sight of a visually impaired person goes far beyond the life of the individual; it strengthens communities by allowing adults to return to work and enabling children to go to school and receive an education. People can then contribute to their community, helping to build a better future for their families. Restoring a person’s sight transforms lives.
Rob Waters, Orbis UK Chairman and ophthalmologist, shares one of his first memories of working for the organization: “It was perhaps my first or second mission to Khartoum in Sudan and I remember going out to find people who needed our help. We went to the refugee camp on the plains of Omdurman in the blistering heat and it stretched as far as the eye could see. It was a horrendous place in many ways, people struggling for water and struggling to survive.
“We found this young 23-year old girl who was blind from cataracts, which is entirely unnecessary, and her life was without hope. She couldn’t get married, she couldn’t have children, she couldn’t do all the simple things in life, she couldn’t feed herself, she had to be led about, she couldn’t work, she couldn’t contribute to her community, so her life was null and void. So, we met her and operated on her and removed the cataracts from her eyes. It was the most wonderful moment taking the bandages off and watching her over the following days and seeing that girl’s life restored. It was the most wonderful thing and I have never forgotten it. It was a very emotional moment for everyone who was there and such a fulfilment for what we do.”
After being housed in a DC-8 and then a DC-10, the hospital’s new home is in an MD-10 aircraft. This modified jumbo jet is equipped to perform the most advanced eye-care screenings and operations, as well as train in-country medical colleagues. The hospital is equipped with a 46-seat classroom, a cutting-edge operating theater, a patient-care and laser room, an updated flight deck, an administration room, an audio-visual and IT room, an observation room where visitors can watch live footage of operations, an instrument sterilization/sub-sterile room, a pre- and post-operative care room, a biomedical work area and patient and staff changing rooms.
Everything has been thought out to the last details to maximize space on the 181-foot plane. The operating theater is located directly over the center wing box for optimal stability. It has also been designed as a self-contained unit so it can be transferred from one plane to another if needed.