In plane sight: Orbis

A beacon of hope since 1982, this flying eye hospital is enabling charity Orbis to restore sight to people all around the globe

Watches & Jewellery 29 Dec 2017

The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital
The third generation Flying Eye Hospital is now in a converted MD-10, specially designed to accommodate its purpose

What links a pallet of teddy bears; the Battle of Britain; Omega, the Swiss watch company; 39 million blind people; a USAF Brigadier General and James Bond?

The answer is: eyesight. Specifically, restoring eyesight to some of the 285 million people worldwide who are visually impaired (39 million are totally blind and 246 million have poor vision). Firstly, during the Battle of Britain on 16 August 1940, 601 Squadron scrambled its Hawker Hurricanes, which rose to meet an incoming force of Stuka dive-bombers. Among them was Flying Officer Gordon ‘Mouse’ Cleaver, a pilot who would eventually help many millions of people worldwide to regain their sight.

Cleaver had just engaged the lumbering dive-bombers when he felt his sturdy Hurricane judder under the impact of cannon shells. A second set of shells shattered his canopy, sending shards of Perspex into his face. Blinded in both eyes, with the aircraft’s damaged Merlin engine spluttering, he decided to bail out. He was about to parachute into medical history.

Cleaver subsequently underwent 18 operations, some of them performed by an ophthalmologist called Harold (later Sir Harold) Ridley and had the sight in one eye restored. However, he was left with tiny splinters of the canopy’s acrylic plastic embedded in his eyes. And they appeared to be inert; that is, the body did not reject them. And so, the idea came to Ridley that an artificial lens made of this Perspex material could be used to replace biological ones clouded by cataracts. Some four years after the war, Ridley performed the world’s first implant of an intraocular lens at St Thomas’s Hospital.

Ridley’s work has a direct connection to the large plane I am standing under on the tarmac at Stansted airport. It is an MD-10 jet and it belongs to a charity called Orbis. Orbis was founded in 1982 as a not-for-profit organisation with the aim of curing preventable blindness across the globe, using modern versions of the techniques pioneered by Sir Harold.

Orbis is supported by governments, individuals and partners such as Omega, FedEx (who donated the MD-10 airframe, and supplies volunteer pilots to move it around the world), Alcon, United Airlines and Pfizer, and staffed in a large part by volunteer doctors, nurses and support staff.

The MD-10 is Orbis’s Flying Eye Hospital (FEH), which acts as both a mobile surgery and a teaching hospital, with its 46-seat classroom, A beacon of hope since 1982, this flying eye hospital is enabling a charity to restore sight to people all around the globe where local health workers can watch close-up details and hear the commentary from the volunteer surgeons via video-link as operations are performed in the nearby operating theatre or in the laser room. Using smart-phone technology for its webinars, its reach can also be truly global, allowing them to communicate with countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan where it might be unwise to physically take the plane.

The MD-10 is the third generation FEH. Before its stint visiting developing countries to perform operations (mostly treating cataracts, glaucoma and trachoma) it was the oldest airworthy DC-10 in the world. ‘It took us seven years to build the new plane, using what we had learned from the previous FEH. It has better through-flow and it is modular, in that the medical section is on wheeled pallets that can be rolled out during maintenance,’ says Orbis CEO Bob Ranck, a former USAF Brigadier General.

Like the MD-10, Ranck is a newbie, having joined Orbis just over a year ago. ‘I know how to pick competent people out of a crowd and empower them to make Orbis even more efficient and to use the latest technology so that we can teach even more in-country medical staff to carry out the procedures,’ he explains when I ask about his role.

Orbis is already pretty lean for a $100m organisation. It has permanent and fundraising offices, and 60 long-term programmes, across the world, but it guarantees between 83p and 91p of every pound donated will end up on the front line, although that doesn’t necessarily mean the plane.

‘The FEH is a fabulous tool. It conforms to the standards expected of any on-the-ground-based hospital. But it only represents about 20 per cent of our expenses,’ says Ranck. ‘However, it is the most high-profile 20 per cent. It has a glamour.’ Part of the glamour also comes from high-profile visits to the FEH by the likes of James Bond actor Daniel Craig, who, thanks to his connections with Orbis sponsor Omega, visited the old DC-10 in Mongolia.

The new plane will soon embark on a schedule of global visits, initially to South America and Africa. It will bring enhanced sight to thousands of people (80 per cent of all blindness in the world is either treatable or preventable) and, just as importantly, teach others how to perform these delicate, life-changing operations.

And the teddy bears? About 50 per cent of the operations during a three or four-week mission are on children. They are usually given general anaesthetic and, before they go under, they are presented with an Orbis teddy bear, supplied to the charity by Omega. When they awake, the bear is still there, but has a fresh eye bandage that matches the patient’s. Which is why the FEH always carries 300kg of teddy bears wherever it goes.;