March 21, 2018

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Health takes wings: The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital

It’s not every day that one comes across non-profit organisations and individuals who dedicate their entire life for the underprivileged. To put it in Orbis International’s words— “the gift of sight is priceless, life-changing and at the heart of what we do.”

Started in 1982 in an effort to curb blindness and raise awareness about preventable eye diseases, Orbis works around the globe in some of the most under-served areas in the world, and their goals are simple— to deliver sight by strengthening local eye care institutions, training staff, introducing ophthalmic technology, advocating for supportive policies, and increasing public awareness about eye health.

A World Health Organisation (WHO) study reveals that out of the 253 million blind or visually impaired people globally, a full 90% are in the developing world, and four out of five of those cases would be completely treatable or preventable with access to appropriate healthcare.

The non-governmental organisation (NGO) collaborates with local partners— hospitals, universities, government agencies, and ministries of health— to provide hands-on ophthalmology training, strengthen healthcare infrastructure and push for policies.

The Flying Eye Hospital is Orbis’ zenith, essentially a hospital with wings. Dr Jonathan Lord, global medical director at Orbis, explains: “Our founder, David Paton, realised that doctors working in low income countries were missing out on the opportunities to continue their medical development and to consult with other doctors about their cases. He decided that we could fill this gap by creating a dedicated education tool to bring services and knowledge to them. Thus, the Flying Eye Hospital was born.”

Inside the aircraft

The first plane used by Orbis was a DC-8, donated by United Airlines, and was in service since 1982, and subsequently retired in 1993 after it became too expensive to maintain. It is now a permeant museum piece in Shanghai, China.

The second-generation plane was a DC-10 and conducted programmes from 1993 – 2016. It is also now retired and takes pride of place at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Arizona.

The third-generation plane is a MD-10/30, a donation by FedEx Express, and was launched in 2016, expected to run for about 20 years. The MD-10 is custom-designed to fit a fully-accredited surgical suite, a classroom with 46-seats, and treatment rooms. From the on-board classroom, or even medical institutions back home, both students and specialists can view in real time surgeries occurring onboard the flying eye hospital through a 3D camera.

The recovery room with teddy bears to comfort young patients

The Yuen Yee Operating Room provides a place for surgery, which often doubles as a place for teaching local medical professionals how to do certain procedures. A laser and exam room provides a place to do laser surgery, and there is also an instrument sterilisation room. One of the last rooms on the aircraft is a recovery room that is manned with teddy bears whose eye patches mimic patients’ operations as a way to comfort young children. The teddy bears are courtesy Swiss luxury watchmaker OMEGA.

The pilots of the MD-10 are volunteer pilots who also fly for FedEx or United Airlines, and who receive all of their training courtesy of FedEx.

How does it work?

Dr Lord remarks: “I always tell people that the Flying Eye Hospital celebrates a marriage between two of the most highly regulated industries in the world – medical and aviation. And the two fit together very well.”

Orbis stats for 2016 reveal, that the organisation’s partners, with the support of the Flying Eye Hospital and their training programmes, carried out more than 3.5 million eye screenings of which 2.7 million were tests for children. They carried out over 82,000 surgeries and trained more than 40,000 eye health professionals, including doctors, nurses, and community workers. How do they ensure it all runs hassle free?

“What we need to run our hospital,” explains Dr Lord, “is an airport that we can land our MD-10 at, and a supply of aviation fuel and water. Other than that, the plane is entirely self-sufficient. We generate our own power and medical gases, and we have a full purification plant in order to treat the water we have access too.

Dr Jonathan Lord

The plane carries all the supplies that we need in order to deliver a programme, and during the year we build in restock points where we refresh these supplies.”

Specialists in logistics work with airport authorities and governments on behalf of Orbis, to get the permissions required to land and to use it as a hospital. This includes acquiring full medical licencing for the staff and the volunteers in that country.

The logistics side, outside of permissions, includes ensuring the necessary equipment is in place to help us set up and run the programme, such as sourcing staircases, or security access, water, food, and fuel.

Dr Lord says: “We are immensely grateful for the flexibility and adaptability of our hosts around the world who allow us to fly onto their tarmac and help treat avoidable blindness within the local communities.”

Global partners

The hospital has touched and transformed a number of lives around the globe—and it has received recognition for its efforts. A number of international companies, organisations, and individuals, have contributed to support the cause. In 2015, a series of print ads featuring Nicole Kidman, Cindy Crawford, Chad le Clos, Michael Phelps, and Sergio Garcia were released by OMEGA, to draw attention to Orbis and its work, followed by the custom DeVille Prestige Orbis, or ‘teddy bear watches’ to showcase OMEGA’s continuing support for the cause, with a portion of its sales donated to Orbis.

Classroom aboard the hospital

In October 2016, Dubai Airports and its partners raised AED1.25mn, enough help restore the sight of as many as 31,000 children suffering from cataracts worldwide. In mid-2017, UTC Aerospace Systems made a contribution of $1mn, which will go towards establishing a mobile simulation center outfitted for the aircraft.

“Orbis and the Flying Eye Hospital have made a tremendous impact on the world by restoring vision to hundreds of thousands of people in need,” says Dave Gitlin, president, UTC Aerospace Systems. “The mobile simulation center will help Orbis widen its influence by offering training to more volunteer medical professionals in even more remote areas. It will enable them to get in the field faster and make a difference faster. We are so proud to be associated with such a world-class organisation that makes a profound difference in people’s lives every day.”

Zodiac Aerospace supported the third-generation Flying Eye Hospital by donating galley insert equipment, such as coffee makers, refrigerators and oxygen equipment. ExecuJet began its fixed based operations at Al Maktoum International Airport in November 2017, and announced its decision to provide FBO handling support for the Flying Eye Hospital. LIFT Strategic Design provided the livery design for both second- and third- generation Flying Eye Hospitals and contributing to the cabin design of the MD-10. Rockwell Collins improved the communications systems both on board the flying hospital, as well enabled Orbis to effectively keep track of the flight as it travels across the world. And these are just a few names.

Dr Lord comments: “The plane gains us more in revenue than it costs to run a programme. Various sources fund our long term, on-ground projects and the plane is part of the implementation of many of those projects. The plane works as an icon and helps us to generate revenue to invest back into programmes.”

The Flying Eye Hospital made its debut at the Dubai Airshow 2017, and was well-received. Visitors were offered on-board tours and were awarded a glimpse of the inner workings of this winged charity.

“Did you know that 36 million people in the world are blind, and of those, 75% have a condition that could be reversed or avoided if they had access to eye care?” remarks Dr Lord. “For us, that situation is unacceptable, and the plane is an important tool which helps us to highlight just this. We’ve welcomed people from presidents, to health officials to Mother Teresa on board. This helps us to shout about the issue and work with governments to ensure eye health is firmly on their agenda. There are many different levels of impact the Flying Eye Hospital can help us to have, but at the heart of all of our work is our patients. Restoring sight has an enormous impact not only on those struggling, but also their families and the community.”


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