Illustration by Ryan Pomerantz

Illustration by Ryan Pomerantz

Imagine waking up one early morning, groggy and confused, reaching for a blaring alarm clock next to your bed to hit the snooze button. The first attempt to hit it fails, although you should be able to see it out of the corner of your eye.  Suddenly, you realize you can’t perceive your alarm clock, or anything else in your peripheral vision. The local ophthalmologist you soon visit has both good and bad news. You have glaucoma, and there is no cure, no way to bring back the lost field of view. On the other hand, it was caught before complete vision loss, causing no severe disruption in daily life. A regimen of eye drops, or painless laser eye surgery, can slow the progression of glaucoma, and life continues.

Now, imagine you are an impoverished person living in a developing nation. Waking up with signs of vision loss quickly becomes a life sentence, as the local hospital lacks the means to treat your condition. The small circle of sight that is your visual field slowly shrinks until it completely disappears, and complete dependence on others begins, causing further strain on families that cannot afford it.

The latter situation is unfortunately a reality for millions of people in developing countries around the world who suffer from various forms of treatable eye conditions. In Bangladesh alone, 750,000 adults and 40,000 children suffer from various forms of vision loss, with very high rates of cataract-related eye disease, a treatable condition. In a country with limited resources, quality of life drops significantly for the blind, a disability that could have been prevented in many cases. With new advancements in eye care in the developed world, 80 percent of the diseases that cause blindness have become treatable. Delivering these solutions to the rest of the world, however, has had many hurdles. Training to become an ophthalmologist is long and expensive, so bringing doctors from impoverished countries to undergo instruction in the US would be infeasible due to cost and licensing laws.

Instead of bringing foreign doctors to hospitals in the U.S., leaders in the medical industry in the 1970s decided to bring the hospital to the trainees, by founding Orbis, the flying eye hospital. By combining all the facilities of a state-of-the-art hospital with the mobility of an airplane, Orbis was able to bring the world’s best ophthalmologists to train professionals in countries around the world, beginning with Beijing in 1994 in a DC-8 jumbo jet. Soon, long-term training programs began in Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India, Vietnam, and various Latin American countries. Surgical, nursing, and biomedical engineering training programs took place over several weeks.

The flying eye hospital and its related programs were a major success, and played a huge role in reducing eye disease rates in developing countries. Through these breakthrough programs, over 40,000 doctors and staff received training in 2015 that allowed them to screen over 2.13 million patients for potentially blinding diseases . In Ethiopia, where there are over 1.2 million people suffering from blindness, Orbis has changed lives by doubling the number of ophthalmologists from 76 to 120, the number of cataract surgeons from 3 to 48, and the number of optometrists from 0 to 123. By continuing to broaden their scope in the future, Orbis is bringing eye care to those who need it desperately, changing millions of lives for the better. In the fight against disease, accessibility of quality care is essential, and a flying hospital is an ingenious solution to problems in logistics and transportation.

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