Flying Eye Hospital touches down at PBI

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The Flying Eye Hospital is fully equipped to treat patients on board the aircraft. Photo courtesy of Orbis.

By: Jan Engoren Contributing Writer

The one and only Flying Eye Hospital (FEH), operated by the global non-profit, Orbis, flew into Palm Beach County last month to heighten awareness about its mission and to raise funds to support its efforts in fighting blindness around the world.

The fully accredited ophthalmic teaching hospital sits on board a refurbished MD-10 aircraft which began its life in 1973 as a passenger plane.

In the 1980s, FedEx converted it into an MD-10 freighter and cargo plane and donated the plane to Orbis in 2012. Over the coming four years Orbis installed state-of-the-art hospital equipment and the plane began flying medical missions in 2016.

Orbis has conducted training projects over the last 32 years in more than 92 countries, including 78 with the Flying Eye Hospital, where they partner with local governments and health ministries.

“We prevent and treat avoidable blindness and work with the local communities to train their physicians and health care providers,” said Louise Harris, a spokesperson for the company.  “This has a ripple effect in communities.”

The plane has a 46-seat classroom, an administration room, a state-of-the-art IT room, a patient care and laser treatment room, operating and changing rooms, sterilization rooms, a pre- and post-operative care room and a tele-med technology system called Cybersight.

Cybersight enables doctors to participate and watch surgeries remotely on their smartphone and is currently available in 190 countries.

Doctors in war-torn areas such as Syria or the Sudan, where the plane may not land, are able to be trained with the Cybersight technology.

In its simulation room, doctors are trained using artificial intelligence and virtual reality simulators for cataract and retina surgeries and for diagnostic purposes to determine eye diseases such diabetes retinopathy.

Retired pilots from FedEx who now volunteer their time and expertise for Orbis man the planes.  Currently, 17 former FedEx pilots fly for Orbis.

Captain Gary Dyson, the chief pilot flew for FedEx for 33 years. Retired since last year, Dyson now flies for Orbis on medical mission flights.

“It’s the most rewarding and enjoyable flying I’ve done in my career,” Dyson said.

He keeps his guitar in the cockpit and entertains little kids while they’re waiting for surgery.

On his last trip to Africa he recalls an elderly man whose vision was restored by the Orbis medical team. The patient was so grateful and happy that his grandson wouldn’t have to care for him anymore and was free to go to school and play like other kids.

Local ophthalmologist Dr. Lawrence Katzen of Katzen Eye Care and Laser Eye Center in Boynton and West Palm Beach, a pioneer in the field of LASIK surgery, went on his first mission with Orbis in 1984 to Malawi.

“Orbis is a great cause,” Katzen said. “Many people in the world go blind because they have no access to healthcare or there are few providers in their region.”

He cites the doctor patient ratio in Malawi as an example of access – one ophthalmologist per 2 million patients.

“Orbis and the Flying Eye Hospital have made a significant impact in reducing world blindness,” says Katzen, who plans to travel with the FEH to Vietnam later this year.

According to statistics provided by Orbis, more than 2.2 billion people (1/3 of the world’s population) have a vision impairment or suffer from blindness. In almost half of the cases, the conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy are preventable.

In 2018, Orbis conducted more than 3 million eye screenings and exams, distributed 8 million antibiotics and performed 78,000 eye surgeries and laser treatments.

On board, the plane is staffed by an international crew and providers, including engineer Alvaro Leon from Colombia, Gloria Rhoomes, a Jamaican-born and UK-based nurse and Dr. Eduardo Mora, an ophthalmologist from Panama.

Filipino nurse Leonardo Mercado staffs the operating room and Kenyan-born Kenan Mwenda is in charge of cleaning and sterilizing the instruments and teaching infection control for the local hospitals.

In the recovery room, nurse Susamma Ebenezer, originally from India, greets the kids with teddy bears, sporting an eye patch like the patients, and makes them feel comfortable and cared for.

“There’s no feeling like it, when you see a kid happy and smiling to have their eyesight restored,” Ebenezer said. “They usually give me a big hug and smile – they’re so happy and thankful.”

While in Palm Beach, a former patient from Mongolia, now living in Canada, flew in to visit the team. At 10 years old she was in a car accident and nearly lost her vision completely.  In 1997, she was operated on successfully by the FEH team and is now a spokesperson for eye health around the world.

After departing PBIA, the Flying Eye Hospital heads west to Ft. Worth, TX where it will train a group of Bolivian doctors using their high-tech simulators in the latest eye surgery techniques for them to take their new skills back to their country.

Later in the year, the FEH will visit Zambia, Cameroon, India, Mongolia and the UK.

To learn more or to support their efforts visit orbis.org.