Doctors of hope on the wing

Flying visit... With India accounting for one fifth of the world’s blind children under the age of 16, the flying doctors on the ORBIS mission are bringing new hope to many. Now in Jaipur, this is ORBIS’ 17th visit and they intend returning next year.

From afar, it appears like any other passenger plane on the runway, waiting for travellers to take off. A closer look reveals that this DC-10 jet is unique - it houses the only airborne operating theatre for eye treatment in the world.

Its purpose is to eliminate avoidable blindness in developing countries where 90 per cent of the world’s 45 million blind people live.

ORBIS, an NGO which works for saving sight worldwide, is using this plane as a tool to create awareness about eye donations and skills exchange on eye diseases in developing countries. The plane’s current fortnight-long stop is Jaipur, where it will operate around 150 blind children inside the plane as well as train over a 100 doctors and double the number of paramedical staff from different hospitals in Rajasthan.

The flying hospital is the brainchild of one man - Dr David Paton - an eminent eye surgeon in USA. In the 1970s, while touring developing world, he was shocked by the state of eye care services and decided to embark on an airplane-bound mission that could bring hope and light into numerous lives in these countries.

The refurbished aircraft has all facilities to run a miniature hospital. It is equipped with a state-of-the-art examination and laser treatment room, operation theatre, recovery room, nursing and bio-medical engineering training areas, audio/visual studio and 48-seat classroom.

Skills exchange

The first hospital with wings was launched in 1982, its maiden voyage being to Panama. Since then, the flying eye hospital has visited 87 countries and saved the sight of tens of millions of people. Jaipur is its 17th visit to India. Next year, it plans a revisit to the country. It flew to India for the first time in 1982.

In the two week-duration (September 22 to October 3), well known ophthalmologists and paramedical staff from various countries, who fly with the plane, will train local doctors and paramedical staff to exchange the skills in advanced ophthalmic techniques and  surgical knowledge in Jaipur, said David Hunter Cherwek, Medical Director of ORBIS International. 

‘Youngest doc’ on-board

The 21 crew members, including doctors, nurses and biomedical engineers and flight mechanics, are flown from country to country for up to 10 months in a year by United Airline pilots, who volunteer their services. In between, many doctors from various countries also accompany them on their tour to different countries for short duration and work as volunteers, mainly assisting surgery and training doctors.
Balamurali K Ambati of ‘world’s youngest doctor’ fame and now an associate professor at University of Utah, US, also works as a volunteer by taking a break from his work.

Childhood blindness

“It is a pleasure to work in this flying hospital as along with surgery, I also exchange my knowledge with local doctors. Apart from serving poor in my home country, I can also learn a lot of things,” said Ambati, a native of Andhra Pradesh now settled in America.

Apart from him, other Indian-origin doctors — Dr Rajiv Maini and Dr Sukumar Sudheer — are also working as volunteers. As many as 3.2 lakh children under the age of 16 are blind in India, which accounts for one fifth of the world’s blind children, ORBIS focus in India is on childhood and corneal blindness, said G V Rao, Country Director ORBIS.

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