Eye Doctors Open Their Hearts to restore sight around the world

The philosophy of ORBIS is the well-known one: Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime. Only with ORBIS, the fishing boat is a DC-10 aircraft known as the Flying Eye Hospital.

ORBIS is a non-profit, humanitarian organization dedicated to preserving and restoring sight in the developing world,. They accomplish this by strengthening the capacity of local partners in their efforts to prevent and treat blindness.

Headquartered in New York City, the organization has a wealth of volunteers, from pilots to doctors, to further this cause. The global volunteer force numbers 400 people; in the metropolitan area, there are 36 volunteers, its biggest local force.

One of those volunteers is Dr. Edward L. Raab, a pediatric ophthalmologist. A professor of ophthalmology and pediatrics at Mount Sinai Medical Center, he has been called on four times in the last five years to travel across the world with ORBIS. On a mission, Dr. Raab is part of a team that educates local doctors in the newest procedures and treatments that can help restore sight to those suffering from different forms of blindness.

Dr. Raab explains how he works: “There are two types of ORBIS missions. We can function on the DC-10, or we can work directly in a local hospital. In either venue, we may be the only opportunity for the local ophthalmologists to see what can be done and what is being done. We can leave something positive with the community.”

The Flying Eye Hospital makes it possible for ORBIS to transport a state-of-the-art eye hospital and teaching facility to airports throughout the developing world. The plane, from the flight deck forward, is similar to most other aircraft. From the flight deck aft, it is unique. The operating room is in the center of the aircraft, since this is the most stable area. The plane has three power sources. Circulating air is filtered through hospital-grade HEPA filters.

There is a substantial audiovisual system in the plane; 17 cameras, eight microphones and 554 video monitors are stationed throughout. This system allows for live interaction between the people in the classroom, which is in the front part of the plane, and the personnel in the operating rooms. If a language barrier exists, translators are provided. These surgeries are also recorded, edited, and duplicated in DVD format so that the procedures taught during each program can be donated to the host country’s ophthalmic community.

“We must do something to effectively alleviate the suffering of tens of millions of people who go blind despite medicines and treatments that can prevent their condition,” says Oliver Foot, president of ORBIS International. “The human toll is incalculable; the economic cost runs into many billions. Training, providing more infrastructure and public health education, combined with the considerable influence of foreign leaders, will help contain this problem and in the long run, rid the global community of avoidable blindness. That’s our goal.”

The statistics are alarming; according to the World Health Organization, there are nearly 36 million blind people worldwide and another 124 million people who have vision so poor that normal life is impossible. And, of the estimated 1.4 million blind children in the world, three-quarters live in the poorest regions of Africa and Asia. Every minute, one more child in the world loses his or her sight.

ORBIS makes frequent trips to these parts of the world. In March, ORBIS volunteers and the DC-10 traveled to India. (Only the flight crew travels on the DC-10; the volunteers travel independently). Dr. Raab was part of that mission. “If we can treat an infant or child, we can also make an economic impact on the part of the country where that child is from,” he said. “If a child will spend his life permanently blind or visually handicapped, he will be viewed as non-productive to his family and his town. In so many families, every family member must help out. A child whose sight has been restored will experience a profound and lifelong change. In foreign countries, there are also cultural reasons to perform corrective surgery. A young woman with corrected lazy eye will have more opportunities in life, even in marriage choices, and will feel better about herself.”

The two main causes of blindness in India are cataracts, at 63 percent, and refractive errors at 20 percent. More than half of all childhood blindness in India could be avoided if trained pediatric eye care personnel and adequate facilities were available.

Since 1982, when the Flying Eye Hospital launched from Houston, TX, an estimated 18 million blind people in 83 countries have had their sight restored or preserved as a result of ORBIS’s work.

For more information, or to donate, visit www.orbis.org, or write to ORBIS International, 520 Eighth Avenue, 11th floor, New York, N.Y. 10018.


Eye Care at Home

According to Dr. Raab, parents should have their children examined by an eye care professional by the time they are three years old, even if there is no sign of a problem. “There are certain medical guidelines in the U.S., but they should not be construed as standards,” he said. Pediatricians will do a ‘red-reflex exam’ periodically from infancy through six months to observe for possible cataract and other conditions that would block sight. And children are given a visual and auditory test once in grade school. “But if possible,” Dr. Raab advised, “don’t wait until that age. Most problems are best corrected when they begin. And the tests given in school aren’t as comprehensive as an examination by an eye care professional.”