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Giving the gift of sight

Of the 245 million visually impaired people around the world, 80 per cent could have been treated with access to trained medical staff. Now the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital – which has treated 18 million patients – is spreading its wings to do more, discovers Carol Davis

  • Memory Chonga
    Memory Chonga, who was suffering from a severe cataract, says her life changed after her sight was restored. Image Credit: Supplied picture
  • Memory Chonga
    Bangladesh, like many other developing countries, has benefitted greatly from the care of Orbis volunteers. Image Credit: Supplied picture

Born in Udaipur in India, five-year-old Lucky and his younger sister Kashish, two, were different from the other children. Both were born with cataracts. To make matters worse, Kashish also has a severe squint. So instead of playing outside with other children, they were forced to stay close to their parents’ side, since even walking out alone frightened them.

School was tough for Lucky – he couldn’t see the board or play safely with the other children. And since their mother couldn’t leave them, she’d have to sit with them at all times, which made her worry for their future.

She and her husband worked hard and saved for four and a half years so Lucky could have the government hospital operation he needed, but they still didn’t have enough.

Then the children’s grandfather talked to a friend of a friend, who worked at the Alakh Nayan Mandir Hospital – which partners with the unique international sight-saving charity Orbis – and both children were offered the cataract surgery they needed, at a subsidised rate, since the parents were keen to pay something.

“We used to worry that they would hurt themselves,” says their father. “We didn’t know what kind of future they would have. Now their future will be what they make it.”

Kashish will have the squint surgery she needs to address her eye problems, and the family is looking forward to a bright future. Lucky now loves going to school, and both children can now play happily with the other youngsters in their village.

The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, which is housed within a DC-10 aeroplane, has changed the lives of many thousands of the most desperate around the world. When it visited Abu Dhabi last September, visitors from the UAE were invited to have a look around the plane, where volunteer surgeons and local doctors perform surgery before trainees in a 48-seat classroom at the front of the aircraft.

The vision of Dr David Paton, head of ophthalmology at Baylor College of Medicine
in Texas, US, the global charity Orbis International has just celebrated its 30th anniversary.

From his travels through the developing world, Dr Paton knew that sky-high costs of tuition and international travel made it hard for local doctors to study abroad to learn the necessary skills to treat patients at home.

According to the World Health Organisation, 245 million people worldwide are visually impaired, and 80 per cent of those suffer needlessly. Their blindness could have been prevented or treated.

Dr Paton’s solution was clear – a mobile teaching hospital that could take volunteers with surgical knowledge and skills to doctors in developing countries through hands-on training and lectures.

Friends and benefactors in the aviation industry made a donation that saved the sight of thousands – an out-of-service aeroplane. A grant from the United States Agency for International Development (Usaid) and private donations meant Orbis could convert the plane into a fully functional teaching hospital, and fly to Panama on its first training mission in 1982.

In those first two years, Orbis volunteer doctors and nurses flew to 24 countries, taking their Flying Eye Hospital programme to places in dire need – like Malawi, where two ophthalmologists served seven million.

By 1985, the charity was setting up its first off-the-plane programme in Dhaka, Bangladesh. And in the past 30 years, Orbis has provided 18 million people with eye care, improving the skills of 300,000 local doctors and nurses too.

“Orbis is in my blood – a dream that came true,” says Dr Ahmad Gomaa, a graduate of Kasr-Al-Aini Medical School, Egypt, who worked at the Flying Eye Hospital before becoming a UK consultant ophthalmic surgeon.

Now the new medical director of Orbis, he believes, “The Flying Eye Hospital is a unique educational tool; it inspires people and ignites the imagination,” he says. “But together, we can do more – with our hospital, with wings and the collective mind of an international team – the sky’s the limit.”

Dr Gomaa’s dream was inspired by his father’s experience. His father’s life was badly affected by a very early cataract operation, which meant he had to wear heavy glasses. Years later, an operation on his other eye was done by a surgeon who had trained in a newer technique outside Egypt. Two days later, he had no need for glasses. “I saw the difference that providing a patient with the very best care can make, and decided I wanted to be an ophthalmologist,” says Dr Gomaa.

Shine a light

Orbis is changing lives worldwide – like that of 14-year-old Memory Chonga, an orphan from Zambia who has been totally transformed. Almost totally blind from cataracts, she was isolated, unable to attend school or leave home often and became introverted and sad.

Orbis surgery changed her life. When her ophthalmologist, Dr Chileshe Mboni, saw her the day after her surgery, the little girl told the doctor it was like a light had been lit inside her. The introverted girl had been transformed to an elated one, reading and posing for photographs and effusive in her thanks.

Within a single week, her life had changed from sitting in darkness in her grandmother’s hut to starting a new life with crystal-clear vision and a bright future of many happy years ahead of her – and all thanks to Orbis.

Yet it’s not only patients whose lives are transformed by the work of the flying eye charity. As associate director of nursing for Orbis, Heather Machin left her Brisbane home to travel the world. “There are so many simple things that I can easily do to see life-changing differences emerge,” said Heather, speaking from Dubai en route to Australia.

“I have these overwhelming and mixed feelings of amazement, sadness and urgency every time I visit our partners, because they are working incredibly hard, yet want more help and training. I can’t walk away.”

For retired ophthalmic nurses like Pauline Dabydeen from Glasgow, who has volunteered on 25 plane trips and five hospital-based programmes, Orbis is simply “the most rewarding thing one can do. When you volunteer with Orbis, you get more back than you ever give,’’ she says.

Having a cataract can be extremely depressing, “particularly for girls”, says Pauline. “I recall a patient in Kolkata, India. She wouldn’t say a word before the operation. After she’d had it and could see clearly, she was chatting away – it meant she finally had the chance to get married, and that would open the door to everything.

Pauline treated a girl in Mongolia, which allowed her to become an Orbis translator. “She’s now making a living. It’s very important to me to give power back to the women,” she says. “Making somebody see is more than simply conquering blindness; it’s linked to a whole set of issues in a person’s life.”

A volunteer of the world

After around a decade of volunteering, which has taken her to Bangladesh, Vietnam, the Philippines, Cuba, Tanzania, Syria and Ethiopia, Ann-Marie Ablett, an ophthalmic nurse and clinical lead at University Hospital of Wales, has used her holidays and taken unpaid leave to work with nurses around the world.

“We can transfer knowledge and skills to less-qualified nurses, including ways to reduce the risk of infection, the care of sharps [instruments], and proper handwashing,” she says. “We can also work with local nurses, who have a real thirst for knowledge.” Just as surgeons on the plane train local consultants, nurses working with them or in local hospitals are training an entire generation of nurses.

The impact of sight loss is far greater in developing countries. “If a mother or father loses their sight, they cannot provide for their family,” says Ann-Marie. Also, 50 to 60 per cent of children who are diagnosed as blind and end up on the street die within two years.

UK paediatric anaesthetist Dr Simon Courtman believes that seeing people the day after surgery is life changing. Removing a cataract from the eye of seven-year old Luiz in Trujillo, Peru, he saved the sight in his left eye, leaving his father overcome. “The magnitude of the emotions watching a child realise they can see again never wears off,” he says.

Now Orbis volunteers are looking forward to a bright 2013, with lots of international support. The visit to Abu Dhabi aimed to demonstrate the work that the plane does and gather support for the next-generation Flying Eye Hospital – a cargo plane donated by FedEx to be converted for use this year.

“To help us do this work, Orbis needs ongoing financial support,” says Dr Gomaa. “Just £19 (Dh112) could give a patient their sight back, and allow them to become an independent, productive member of their community.”

When she developed cataracts two years ago, Kod Banu couldn’t move from her house in Rangpur, Bangladesh, because she simply couldn’t see. “I couldn’t work, cook, keep my house or feed my four children,” she says. “My son said, ‘what will happen to us without food?’”

Then her eldest son heard of the Orbis eye camp, which has successfully operated on her left eye. “Now I can keep my house well, my vision is very good, and I can look after my children again.”

That’s one more success story for Orbis.


  • What: The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital
  • Where: Across the world
  • How: Providing free medical services to the needy and training doctors in developing countries

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