Inside the Flying Eye Hospital as it Embarks on its Latest Global Sightsaving Mission

Parked beside the billion dollar private planes at Stansted Airport sits an altogether different aircraft.


Head Orbis nurse Angela Purcell (left) bonds with Dulguun, 10, before prepping him for oculoplastic surgery on the Flying Eye Hospital. (Photo: Orbis)

This is the McDonnell Douglas-10 Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, a reformatted FedEx donated jumbo jet which has been on tour in the UK for the first time this week since it came into service in June.

Orbis, a blindness prevention charity, not only provides on-board surgery in countries such as India, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Vietnam for weeks at a time, but the hospital also acts is also the world’s only ophthalmic teaching hospital on board an MD-10 aircraft.

Eye care teams in Africa, Asia and Latin America all have the chance to further their training and skills under the tutelage of volunteers such as Dr Ian Fleming, a consultant anaesthetist at King’s College London who spends two weeks of his paid holiday every year to work with Orbis.

“This is exactly the same machine I have at work,” he told i from the operating room at the centre of the plane on a guided tour of the Flying Eye Hospital this week. “If I squint I could be back at home at King’s. I love going to work in the local hospitals – that’s more challenging – as well as as operating on the plane, to work with whatever equipment they have and help other people develop their services in that environment.”

Of the 39 million people worldwide that are blind, 32 million cases (80 per cent) are avoidable, the main causes being cataracts, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration. And about 90 per cent of the world’s 285 million visually impaired people live in developing countries.

Next generation aircraft

The “next generation” MD-10 is the third incarnation of the flying hospital, which was born in 1982 with a grant from the US Agency for International Development and a number of private donors.

It can fly twice as long as its predecessor, has its own water treatment plant and air conditioning systems, while also housing a 46-seat classroom, sterilization room and operating room that uses 3D technology and live broadcast systems which allow local participants to observe surgeries while they are taking place.

“We can do 5-6 cases a day, if they are all local,” says nurse Leonardo Mercardo, who has been working with Orbis for 21 years, in the pre and post-operation room at the rear of the plane. “We also do surgery at the local hospitals sometimes, as well as the plane.”

A giant teddy bear on one bed testifies to the team’s attention to detail. “When they go off to surgery the bear is normal, but when they come back the bear also has an eye patch. The kids end up feeling more caring towards the bear than themselves!” Mr Mercardo said.

The MD-10’s arrival at Stansted has coincided with the launch of a new campaign, Operation Sight, which aims to raise enough money to provide 100,000 training sessions and improve facilities at 30 hospitals in Africa and Asia.

Dr Jonathan Lord is the charity’s global medical director, the latest chapter in a career with Orbis that began as a volunteer anaesthetist. He quit his job as consultant anesthetist at the prestigious Moorfields Eye Hospital in London to go full-time with the charity.

“Some people thought I was mad,” he said. “Some still do! But there comes a point in life when you feel that normal routine you do isn’t enough. You want to do something more. Events happen in life and you take stock and ask yourself: ‘what do I really want to do?’ And I felt I wanted to do this.”

Last year he spent 70 per cent of the time abroad – “I have a wonderfully supportive wife”, he laughs – more than usual, but his work still takes him away 1-2 weeks a month.

“We have a particular interest in pediatrics, which is completely under-served. People don’t do it because it’s complex, you need anaesthesia, they are much more difficult to deal with from an opthalmology standpoint.

“In India and Bangladesh we set up huge networks. In Vietnam we have been responsible for defining government policy in how to deal with a lot of these areas.”

Major killer on the horizon

Having served 92 countries, trained more than 30,000 medical professionals and having screened or examined 2.13 million people in 2015 alone, Dr Lord is in doubt where the next challenge lies.

“Diabetes is the timebomb of the 21st century. Look at any WHO publication and you will see [Type 2] diabetes is the big threat to world health. The growth in the next 30 years will be astounding. In Asia it’s going mad already, Latin America it’s increasing, sub-Saharan African it’s starting and worldwide will increase 97 per cent over the next 10 years.

“It’s going to become a major problem, not only the major killer through heart disease and stroke, it will become one of the major blinders around the world. It already causes early cataracts, but also diabetic retinopathy [a diabetes complication that affects eyes]. It is treatable – if you treat it early and you can stabilise it. We believe it’s an area we should be heavily evolved in.”

As operations happen on the plane parked on a runway, each medic has a local licence to practice as well as a licence in whatever country they are from. Orbis now has a network of country offices around the world, having opened its first in Ethiopia in 1999, with the plane serving as the main tool in its global mission, as Dr Lord described it.

“Ethiopia is where we introduced eye banking [retrieving and storing eyes for cornea transplants and research], corneal transplants, modern cataract surgery. These are all firsts for sub-Saharan Africa. So we’ve moved from just using the plane to having that network, which help us plan – in conjunction with WHO officials – where and when we should visit a particular country.”

This year the plane is due to visit Vietnam, Cambodia and Bangladesh and thousands more men, women and children will be given the gift of sight – many for the very first time.

Dr Fleming said: “As long as I live, I will never tire of witnessing that moment, a day or two after surgery, when a patient’s dressings are removed. That massive grin that spreads over a child’s face when they look at the world – at their parents’ face – for the first time. It’s breathtaking. That’s what keeps me coming back.”


Source: i News



Inside the Flying Eye Hospital as it Embarks on its Latest Global Sightsaving Mission

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The Operating Theatre Journal, OTJ, is published monthly and distributed to every hospital operating theatre department in the UK. The distribution includes both the National Health Service and the Private Sector.

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