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Vol 21, No. 12, December 2017   |   Issue PDF view/purchase
An ophthalmic hospital with wings
The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital is a fully accredited, state-of-the-art hospital onboard an MD-10 aircraft. It delivers innovative training and continued medical education locally. Elaine Woon and Jasmine Ng tell us more about this mobile hospital.

The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital looks like any other plane on the outside. However, on the inside, it is unlike any plane you have seen before.

The inside of the aircraft has been converted into a teaching eye hospital, complete with a classroom, laser room and operating room. It is a fully accredited (American Association for Accreditation of Ambulatory Surgery Facilities International) mobile hospital.

It all started 35 years ago, when the aviation and medical industries came together to commit to fighting avoidable blindness.

Packed with the latest medical equipment and training facilities, the state-of-the-art teaching hospital allows medical staff to travel the world to share knowledge and develop skills with communities that need it most.

Before the plane lands, Orbis will work with hospitals in the developing country to select patients for operations that are good prognosis cases and give priority to children, those in jeopardy of going blind and those who are blind in both eyes.

The state of blindness

According to a paper published in the Lancet Global Health by the Vision Loss Expert Group, 253 million people in the world are blind or visually impaired. Another 1.1 billion people live with near vision impairment while 118 million people have mild visual impairment.

The World Health Organisation reported that adequately trained human resources are the core component in the prevention and treatment of avoidable blindness.

When Orbis started, the expense of tuition and international travel prevented most doctors and nurses in developing countries from training overseas. Orbis brought the school to these doctors and nurses by building a Flying Eye Hospital. Now 35 years later, Orbis continues to bring training to those who need it through the Flying Eye Hospital programs, country programs and Hospital-Based programs.

Inside the Flying Eye Hospital

The entire plane is linked up through an advanced audio-visual system, allowing those in the 46-seater Alcon Foundation classroom to watch the surgery and interact with the surgeon, an Orbis Volunteer Faculty member, live and in 3D.

Laser treatment and training take place in the L’Occitane Patient Care and Laser Room while surgeries and one-on-one hands-on training happen in the Yuen Yee Operating Room. Procedures and trainings in both rooms can be broadcasted to the Alcon Foundation classroom.

Cybersight, its telemedicine platform, allows doctors around the world to join the live training program with just a click of a button.

Orbis Volunteer Faculty also teaches local nurses to sterilise instruments, use ophthalmic tools and proper scrubbing techniques in the Yuen Yee Instrument Sterilisation Room/Sub-sterile facility. The room complies with international hygiene and airflow standards.

The plane visited Vietnam in June 2017. 144 patients went through laser or eye operations onboard the MD-10. 212 medical professionals, including doctors, nurses, biomedical technicians and anaesthetists, were trained.

A human touch

Orbis also creates a warm and welcoming environment for children who have never been on a plane or have not been to a hospital, through friendly medical staff and a teaching and caring tool, the Orbis bear.

Staff would explain and demonstrate to the young patient what the bear will be going through during the operation, including pre-and post operation, so that they will be mentally prepared for the same.

When Project Orbis Singapore’s Director, Elaine Woon, was onboard the MD-10 for the first time in Vietnam this year, she observed how these teaching tools helped five-year-old Nhut Long, a little boy who was getting ready for his surgery.

Nhut Long was diagnosed with V pattern hypertropia, which meant that his eyes were misaligned and he had difficulty focusing on objects.

In the Flying Eye Hospital’s FedEx Recovery Room where Nhut Long was waiting for his turn for surgery, he looked comfortable in the surgical clothes and mob cap, and was chortling as he watched his favourite cartoon show on the tablet lent to him by a doctor onboard.

With the teaching bear by his side, Elaine watched Nhut Long giggle, and was looking forward to meeting him the next day after the surgery.

At the host hospital, Binh Dinh Hospital, Nhut Long’s bandage was removed. His eyes were aligned, and he was recovering well.

A focus on training

The Flying Eye Hospital is an effective global training mechanism and a model tertiary institution. Orbis provides high-quality and long-lasting education so that these medical professionals can use their new skills to treat their patients even after the Flying Eye Hospital departs.

Programs typically take one year to plan, and the team makes preliminary visits to understand skills shortages, needs and resources, and create tailored curriculum to better reach doctors in need of training.

Its training program emphasises a comprehensive multi-disciplinary approach to Ophthalmology, including nursing, anaesthesia and biomedical engineering practices for quality patient care.

The Flying Eye Hospital in Asia

Through Project Orbis Singapore, the Flying Eye Hospital's work is immense. The Singapore office is a springboard to projects in Southeast Asia as it leverages its strategic location, robust economy and advance medical infrastructure. It is a resource development base to improve access to high quality eye care services across Asia through fundraising and raising awareness. One of the ways the Singapore office receives support is through events such as the private gala happening in February 2018.

In the Asia-Pacific region, the Flying Eye Hospital has been to Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, for a combined 129 times.

Singapore is no stranger to the Flying Eye Hospital. When the plane is in Asia for programs, it goes to Singapore for its regular maintenance and checks.

The Flying Eye Hospital also conducted two programs in Singapore, in 1985 and 1996. In 1996, it teamed up with the Singapore National Eye Centre to train 70 doctors in the region. Now, senior ophthalmologists from SNEC volunteer with Orbis as members of its Volunteer Faculty.

About the Authors:

Elaine Woon
Project Orbis Singapore

Elaine Woon is the Director of Project Orbis, the Singapore affiliate of Orbis International headquartered in New York. Trained in Marketing Communications and Business Development in both the non-profit and business sectors, her experience is built around establishing strategically aligned partnerships and developing projects that are sustainable and scalable.

Elaine started her career in business development in the financial services industry. She joined an exciting market when the new regulatory regime created opportunities for a wider range of financial products distributable by stockbroking firms. Through the new alternative distribution channels that she set up, SGD25 million was brought through in one and a half years.

One incidental road trip to Kuala Lumpur changed her life. Her little adventure to detour to an hidden lane in Malaysia brought her to a tiny community filled with shacks lining by the river and rubbish jumbled at the corner. She then took the leap of faith to enter the non-profit industry without any fundraising experience. Her experiences in the business sector brought significant growth to charitable organisations.

At the charity preventing child trafficking and exploitation in Cambodia that she worked, she secured several highly sought-after grants from the United Nations and Singapore Committee for UN Women, successfully featured the charity through media partners such as Marie Claire and Discovery Channel, and built up a steady stream of regular income.

With her experience in international donor relations and volunteer management, she travelled to places to speak about the amazing work that people can do to make a difference in developing countries. Today, she joins her colleagues at Orbis International to fight avoidable blindness around the world.

Jasmine Ng joined Orbis shortly after graduating from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelor in Economics. Interested in International Development, she has participated in a community project in Cambodia and a learning trip to Indonesia. Her previous experience includes interning at a vocational school for children with autism in Singapore and an education technology non-profit in India.

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