Flying Eye Hospital Restores Sight Around the World

July 20, 2016Posted by Helaina Hovitz

There are 285 million people in the world who are blind, and four out of five of them suffer from conditions that are curable or preventable.

The problem is, they lose their sight because they don’t have access to any eye care at all.

Fortunately, a solution takes flight in the form of the world’s only “traveling” ophthalmology hospital in the world, staffed with volunteer faculty of doctors, nurses and pilots.

The Orbis flying eye hospital performs operations for free while simultaneously training doctors on board the parked plane in those areas so that when volunteer faculty departs, the doctors on the ground are equipped with skills they need to continue treating local patients. 

Because the cost of tuition and international travel is so high, it’s hard for many doctors in rural and developing countries train overseas.

Dr. Caroline Mvilongo, based in Cameroon, has been working with the Orbis staff for several years, an ophthalmologist at Yaonndé Central Hospital, is currently a trainee in a glaucoma-focused program. She says that Orbis has equipped her not only with more knowledge, but more confidence, and the quality of surgeries has increased exponentially.


“We can ask questions and get expert feedback, which would have been difficult to get otherwise,” she said. “And the feedback from patients really makes what we do worthwhile.”

She added that patients in Cameroon present with a wide variety of conditions, and the lack of quality eye healthcare skills in the country leaves them without access to the treatment we need.

“Different patient populations often exhibit different conditions, and sound knowledge of various sub-specialties ensure that no matter what the condition, we can provide quality healthcare.”

Dr. Mvilongo was a trainee alongside Professor Ebana Come Mvogo back in 2013 when they operated on Lemuel Tebuck, who was six years old when he was diagnosed with strabismus, a condition that prevents a person from focusing both eyes in the same direction.


Shortly after the operation, his eyes were perfectly aligned, and he no longer needed to wear glasses.

Lemuel is one of 19 million children visually impaired in the world today, and while Orbis’ 470,000 surgeries in 92 countries around the world have made a huge impact, there’s still more work to be done.

That’s why, last month, they unveiled their most recent model, which features 3D technology in its hospital rooms, which are designed as compartmental rooms known as modules. They enable the hospital to be shipped as cargo, which eliminates the need to certify medical items for flight, lowering costs and simplifying maintenance.


One classroom is equipped with 46 seats where in-country medical colleagues can watch and interact with all areas of the aircraft including live surgery taking place within the plane’s surgical area, nurse training in the Instrument Sterilization room and medical staff in the pre- and post-surgical area.

A two-way microphone system allows participants to talk and communicate with the surgeon in the Operating Room. Medical equipment in the Patient Care and Laser Room includes three optical lasers for anterior and posterior procedures, plus an additional unit for general laser surgeries. the Instrument Sterilization Room is where nurses learn how to sterilize instruments for surgery. It is also the room in which Orbis trains nurses.

Lastly, they carry a precious cargo of teddy bears, which are given to every pediatric patient to give them comfort.


The Orbis team focuses on cataract, which is the world’s leading cause of avoidable blindness, as well as glaucoma, diabetes related conditions, refractive errors, and more.

In the past five years, Orbis has facilitated 10,000 doctor trainings, 104,000 nurse trainings, and 11.6 million screenings and eye exams both onboard the aircraft’s hospital and in partnering hospitals on land.

Now, they typically make 6-10 trips per year, and also help fundraise to build permanent eye care facilities in the communities they visit. The first iteration of the plane was a DC-8 model aircraft that first flew to China in 1982.

“There are 1.4 million blind children in the world and more than half of those children have preventable or treatable causes of blindness, and 90 percent of these blind children live in the developing world, where Orbis works,” said CEO Bob Ranck.

“One trained eye doctor or nurse today means more people have access to healthcare, secure jobs and an education, and in turn make a larger contribution to their own communities.”

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