NEWARK—International nonprofit Orbis recently hosted private tours of its third generation Flying Eye Hospital, a former MD10 cargo plane that has been transformed into a fully operating state-of-the-art ophthalmic teaching hospital.
In the making for more than six years, the plane is the third traveling eye-care hospital created by Orbis, whose mission is to make quality ophthalmic training available to doctors in developing countries.
“[It’s] a real fusion of aviation and medicine,” said Dr. H. Jay Wisnicki, a 20-year volunteer ophthalmologist.
Like its predecessors, the aircraft will be utilized by expert volunteer ophthalmologists to teach doctors, nurses, and medical technicians around the world how to treat a range of eye conditions.
The plane, donated by long-time partner Federal Express, stopped near the Newark International Airport as part of a six U.S. city tour to raise awareness about Orbis’ global eye-health mission.
The Flying Eye Hospital is one of many teaching tools Orbis utilizes to help provide eye care for people around the world. The organization says it’s “the world’s only ophthalmic teaching hospital on board a MD10 aircraft.”
The transformed cargo plane is equipped with a state-of-the-art operating room and laser treatment room.
There are 46 seats in the passenger cabin, which make it look just like any other commercial airplane. But on this plane, your seat is part of a classroom where live instruction is broadcast.
“All local doctors sit in the classroom while volunteers teach from a remote location broadcast through a monitor,” said Celia Yeung, communications manager for Orbis.
Expert volunteers also conduct surgeries for conditions such as cataracts and glaucoma on board the plane and can answer questions from the class via a two-way communication system. The plane is equipped with microphones, video monitors, and 3D cameras, (some even affixed to surgical tools) so local doctors get a real-time view of the surgeries
These surgical procedures are recorded and then donated to local hospitals as teaching material.
“Our main purpose is for teaching,” said Yeung, “We don’t do much surgery; every case is for teaching purposes.”
Even after the plane leaves, medical professionals continue to receive free education and mentorship through a telemedicine platform called Cybersight.
Headquartered in New York City, Orbis was formed more than 30 years ago by “a small group of eye doctors whose main mission was to work on eye health,” Wisnicki said.
Orbis estimates in a company fact sheet that 285 million people are visually impaired—19 million of whom are children. Eighty percent of those with impaired vision (mostly in developing/low income countries) suffer from conditions that are “treatable, curable, or preventable with access to timely treatment.”
In February, former U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Bob Ranck took the helm as CEO and is using his military planning experience to help the organization reach its goal to eliminate curable blindness in the world by 2020.
“I’m steeped in metrics and accountability,” he said. He also believes in delegation and trusting people. “I have watched so many flowers blossom in this organization,” he said.
With a dedicated team of professionals, Orbis partners with local governments, hospitals, public health agencies, and fellow NGOs to address eye health needs and advocate for the prevention of blindness.
“We invite the president, the prime minister, minister of health, mayor, governor, all come together to see us,” said Yeung about the organization’s advocacy work. “We show them how we do the training, how we work, and then talk about eye health in their public health system.”
Volunteer ophthalmologists from around the developed world assist Orbis in achieving its mission. “There are hundreds of doctors who are visiting volunteer faculty,” Wisnicki said, “People are selected based on their skill and teaching ability.”
Since its inception, Orbis has visited 92 countries including China, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and India.
Through the operation of permanent offices in 12 countries and with the help of dedicated donors, Orbis raises funds to build permanent, united eye care communities.
After the U.S. tour, the plane will depart to Asia to conduct its inaugural program in Shenyang, China, in September.