Seeing the Light: Eight Days in China On Board a Flying Eye Hospital
As I watched the last piece of surgical equipment being loaded onto the MD-10 aircraft, I was struck by the mission before me—watching first hand as a portable hospital took shape, one that will fly to people in need instead of the other way around.
This is an opportunity for me to witness Orbis’ sight-saving operation in person aboard a flight to China and on the ground there, and to learn more about how the organization transforms the lives of people facing blindness who would not otherwise have access to eye care.
More than 285 million people are visually impaired, and 4 out of 5 suffer from preventable conditions. Ninety percent of these people live in developing countries where they can’t access sight-saving treatments that many take for granted in the United States.
In this mission to unite the world to fight blindness, Orbis is introducing the third-generation Flying Eye Hospital, the world’s only accredited ophthalmic training hospital that lives on an MD-10 aircraft donated by FedEx, and flown by volunteer FedEx pilots. We’re headed to Shenyang, China, in the northeastern part of the country, where eye health has not been a priority for many people.
The new Flying Eye Hospital features 3D technology and live broadcast capabilities enabling Orbis, with their expert Volunteer Faculty, to train more doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals—ultimately treating more people and restoring their sight.
Thursday, September 8
Today is my last day with the Orbis team, but this program in Shenyang will continue for another two weeks.
That’s two more weeks of intensive hands-on training for Shenyang’s ophthalmic doctors by some of the best surgeons in the world. Two more weeks of life changing experiences for suffering people. Two more weeks of work that will impact countless lives.
At the end of this day, like every day, Orbis staffers scrub the plane’s interior from nose to tail. As the last patient is escorted from the recovery room, down the steps of the plane, and to an awaiting bus, nurses and engineers share a few light moments with each other. I take a couple of minutes to think about some of the amazing things that I saw as well: transplant cornea tissue in a small, clear container, a classroom lecture taking place while watching that same surgery, and of course – the massive smiles of relief and “thank you’s” from every single patient.
I look up just in time to catch the sun setting behind the tail of this marvel with wings.
Two more weeks here, then it’ll be time to pack it up and move on to the next country.
Wednesday, September 7
It’s a wrap on the first day of surgery on the new plane! Even on a day marked by monsoon rains and gale force winds, the team performed magnificently and several eye surgeries were completed: laser retinal procedures for two diabetic retinopathy patients, two cataract removals, and one cornea transplant were done for some very grateful people.
It’s very much like any hospital with nursing staff, scrub sinks, and a complete operating room. Unless you happen to see the slightly curved walls you might never know that you were inside a massive airplane.
A day on the Orbis plane during surgery is a mesmerizing beehive of activity. The plane is parked while surgeries take place, but a small army of aircraft maintenance, operations, engineers, and technicians are still needed to provide power, water, clean air, and about 500 other things.
The Orbis plane has a lower deck (complete with staircase) where a lot of the behind-the-scenes work takes place. Staff do their work, plan for the program, and sometimes even find time to grab a quick bite to eat – all while the most complex surgeries are being done just above their heads.
Monday, September 5
Amidst a buzz of excitement, about 100 patients were pre-screened at nearby He University Eye Hospital, where some of the more difficult cases were evaluated by Orbis Volunteer Faculty, and a surgical schedule was created. The Orbis team also conducted a wet lab with local students, practicing surgical skills.
Sunday, September 4
The Orbis team is like a miniature United Nations. It’s a feast for the ears as every conversation is peppered with accents from Colombia, Iran, USA, UK, India, South Africa…that’s just to name a few.
During the flight, nurses from Jamaica and Peru doubled as flight attendants, a Canadian doctor worked on research, and the planning team made final preparations for the upcoming program. In all, six continents are represented here in China today by a team with the singular goal of improving eye care around the world.
The plane has been unpacked (with some help from the local FedEx team members) and everyone is ready to get started with hospital visits, evaluations, and life changing surgeries.
Friday, September 2
The plane landed in Shenyang Friday afternoon to the sound of excited cheers from both on board and on the ground!
Thursday afternoon, September 1
After a really brief refueling stop in Anchorage, Alaska, the plane is heading off en route to China!
Thursday, September 1
The new Orbis Flying Eye Hospital is loaded, fueled, and ready to fly its first mission.
Meet the volunteer FedEx pilots who today are flying the new Orbis Flying Eye Hospital to Shenyang, China: Gordon Platt (retired), Gary Dyson, Mark Cardwell, and David Hayes.
Wednesday, August 31
The new Flying Eye Hospital prepares to depart Moffett Federal Airfield for Shenyang, China.
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