Flying Eye Hospital touches down in Toronto to celebrate Canadian workers

Orbis International's Flying Eye Hospital visited Toronto June 9 to 11. It hadn't been to the country in almost 10 years, but it made the stop to be a part of Orbis’ annual fundraiser, the Plane Pull for Sight, to raise awareness of their programs and to thank its Canadian staff and volunteers.

More than 253 million people worldwide live with blindness or vision impairment

Orbis International launched the Flying Eye Hospital in 1982. They made a stop in Toronto June 9 to 11 to raise awareness of their programs and thank Canadian staff and volunteers. (James Morrison-Collalto/CBC)

For Dr. Brian Leonard, surgeries at the University of Ottawa Eye Institute typically involve a quiet operating room, soft music and several clinicians speaking in hushed tones.

He's a vitreoretinal surgeon — a specialty focused on eye problems involving the retina, macula and vitreous fluid.

But as a volunteer with Orbis International, a nonprofit organization, Leonard has also become accustomed to a very different surgery experience.

"It's not chaos at all, but it is controlled hectic," Leonard said.

"We have surgeons teaching surgeons, anesthetists to anesthetists, nurses teaching nurses, biomedical engineers … and interpreters, and all that time we're trying very, very hard to restore the sight of [a] person with a blind eye."

Leonard both practises and teaches aboard the Flying Eye Hospital, launched in 1982, to reach the more than 253 million people living with blindness or visual impairment worldwide.

The hospital allows staff and volunteers like Leonard, who's been with the program since 1983, to bring state-of-the-art medical care to the people who need it, primarily in developing countries.

Dr. Brian Lenoard also works at the University of Ottawa's Eye Institute. (James Morrison-Collalto/CBC )

At the same time, the travelling hospital allows them to teach local medical professionals how to help their communities.

"We get up every morning and come running to work with amazing people, amazing technology," Leonard said.

In 2017 alone, the team completed more than 5 million screenings, 96,000 surgeries or laser treatments and trained 62,000 doctors, nurses, teachers and front-line workers.

The plane hasn't visited Canada in almost 10 years, but it made a stop in Toronto from June 9 to 11 to be a part of Orbis' annual fundraiser, the Plane Pull for Sight, to raise awareness of their programs and to thank its Canadian staff and volunteers.

Hospital takes flight

Orbis' hospital runs aboard an MD-10 aircraft which houses a 46-seat classroom, laser room, operating room, pre- and post-operative room and a simulation centre. They also have remote training technology called Cybersight, which allows them to transmit video of operations and lessons around the world.

Students aboard the Flying Eye Hospital are able to practise their skills in a lab on the plane. (James Morrison-Collalto/CBC )

The current plane is the third used by the organization in their history. FedEx, which has worked with the organization for more than 30 years, donated it in 2016 and also flies and maintains the plane.

"It's actually in the same configuration as a freighter," said manager of theatre aircraft operations with FedEx Kevin Ackroyd.

"You can move containers around the airplane that are actually the rooms — the hospital rooms, the interview rooms, the session rooms — depending on the mission that's needed around the world."

The plane will spend two to four weeks in each of its destinations, with local medical professionals joining the team onboard to watch their work.

Staff and volunteers will also go to local hospitals to see what their tools are.

"Here we're giving them the highest standard of care that we can provide in a hospital," said Monelle Ross, recovery room nurse, from inside the plane's pre- and post-operative room.

"Over there you have to customize it with the equipment they have and that's important because once we're gone that's what they're left with to work."

Recovery room nurse Monelle Ross speaks to visitors from the plane's pre- and post-operative room. She said each child patient gets a teddy bear, which they use to demonstrate how the procedure will work. (James Morrison-Collalto/CBC)

Onboard, they'll complete four to six surgeries each day, on children and adults, with surgery times lengthened to allow better teaching opportunities.

Doctors are also equipped with a microphone, so students watching onboard or through their online portal can ask questions.

"This is not an emergency response organization," said Leonard. "It's developmental. We teach the teachers."

He estimates the organization has restored sight to 20 million blind human eyes. Of special importance to him, treating women and girls, who in developing countries are more likely to be blind because of societal barriers.

"If you're a woman or a girl in a developing environment, you're more likely to have a fatal outcome because of your blindness, you're less likely to have treatment for your blindness, and that just sucks."

Canadian impact

According to Hunter Cherwek, Vice President of Clinical Services for Orbis International, three of their top volunteers are from Canada.

Ottawa's Dr. Leonard,  with the most years of service, Cornwall, Ont.'s Dr. Garth Taylor, who completed the most missions at 111 — doing more than 1,000 operations in 60 countries — and Vancouver's Dr. Simon Holland, their first medical director.

"I'm very proud to see that Canada not only helps Orbis with their volunteers, but also their companies, their government grants, really Canada is a critical piece of the Orbis mission," he said.

Cherwek said all of their staff and volunteers, from more than 30 countries, are crucial to their success.

"Everything we do on this plane is about training skills to give people their sight back and transmitting that around the world," he said.

"It's so critical to share these skills, these technologies because so many people are needlessly suffering."


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