‘Flying Eye’ lands in Toronto

Providing eye care for underprivileged patients around the world is one organization’s specialty, and they do it on board an airplane.

The ORBIS Project is a unique nonprofit organization that aims to prevent and treat blindness by offering eye care to patients and education to foreign doctors, all on board a specially outfitted jetliner.

Between November 18-20 OBRIS opened their McDonnell-Douglas DC-10 aircraft to the public at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.

President of ORBIS Canada, Dr. Brian Leonard, said the flying eye hospital provides an opportunity for foreign doctors and medical staff to get a hands on experience in a first-world setting without having to leave their country.

“What has been so successful for ORBIS is that it is a developmental organization. We teach surgical techniques and we are very fussy about who we teach,” Leonard said.

“We are extending the time of the operation to enhance the teaching opportunities and to allow for translations, questions and answers to those questions.”

According to ORBIS, 80 per cent of the world’s blind population could have their vision restored. Furthermore, 90 per cent of the visually impaired live in developing countries where quality eye care is severely lacking.

The airplane is equipped with state of the art optical equipment, an operating room, an audiovisual studio, communications centre, designated area for laser eye surgery and a three-bed recovery room. The DC-10 also includes eight microphones, 17 cameras and 54 video monitors.

“We could have a thousand of airplanes working worldwide and it would not make a dent in the 39 million blind people,” Leonard said. “We teach the best people from the developing country we are in, the people who are most likely to use those techniques and who will teach other people.”

Pilots from FedEx and United Airlines volunteer their time to fly the plane for OBIS. FedEx also provides full aircraft maintenance and ships urgently-needed medical supplies to the ORBIS program for free.

Manager of global operations control for FedEx Canada, Jim Browne, says FedEx is strongly committed to ORBIS Project. “Part of the FedEx commitment is to keep the pilots active with their flight training,” Browne said. “Volunteers do it out of… personal commitment and the company supports it.”

ORBIS has a very simple mission, to teach and train doctors, nurses and other healthcare staff from developing countries. According to a press release from ORBIS, 45 of the over 500 volunteer ophthalmologists, biomedical engineers, doctors, surgeons and nurses at ORBIS are Canadian. “Many of the volunteers have come from Toronto,” said Leonard. “Everyone who is working with ORBIS is making very real sacrifices in their personal lives.”

ORBIS Volunteer and a Medical Director at the Kensington Eye Institute in Toronto, Dr. Shaun Singer has been to Ethiopia and Laos with ORBIS. Speaking through an Orbis press release, Singer said: “continuing medical education is an uncommon privilege in developing countries. Volunteering with ORBIS has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life.”

Dr. David Paton of Houston, Texas, founded the project in 1973. According to Leonard, Paton had worked on board a ship that was a mobile hospital that performed service work and later became the inspiration for ORBIS.

In 1980 United Airlines decided to donate an old DC-8 to Patron and in 1982 the airplane took off from Texas to Panama for its first mission. In 1992 the DC-8 was replaced with the current DC-10 and in 2012 the DC-10 will be replaced with a MD-10 donated by FedEx.

The DC-10 plane has a maximum flying time of six hours and cannot make trans-continental flights, requiring them to regularly stop and refuel. The new MD-10 will reduce the time and cost for ORBIS. “What they get is a much larger aircraft that can go from point A to point B a lot faster and a lot simpler,” Browne said. “The MD-10 will give ORBIS much more flexibility than they have right now.”

Since the organization began 29 years ago ORBIS has been in 89 countries, trained 88,000 doctors and 200,000 nurses and other medical professionals. They have treated over 4.5 million children and an overall total of 17 million people.