Sight savers

PHOTO: Sight savers

Twelve-year-old Luo Chengli lives in Biji, small village in Yunnan Province. Two years ago, a white spot appeared in her right eye. When it lost the ability to see, her alarmed parents sought medical advice from local doctors, who diagnosed the condition as a cataract and told them surgery was required.

The procedure cost RMB3,000 (S$600) - a fortune to the Luo farming family. They returned to their village heart-broken. The once happy-go-lucky Chengli grew a heavy fringe to cover her right eye and turned into a quiet recluse.

When Chuxiong Caring Hospital's ophthalmologist Dr Ai-hua Chen heard about Chengli's story, she immediately arranged to have the operation done. But the Luo family didn't show up even after several days. Sensing something amiss, Dr Chen and her staff drove seven hours to the family's farm. It turned out that the Luos had heard about a fellow villager who went blind after undergoing a similar cataract operation, and feared that a similar fate would befall their daughter.

Dr Chen spent two hours explaining that the villager's cataract surgery had, in fact, been very successful. The patient had gone blind due to an unrelated retinal disease a year later. Convinced by the doctor's sincerity, Mr Luo agreed to the procedure. His daughter's sight was restored.

Today, Chengli is a vivacious child who excels in school and dreams of becoming a dancer. Her parents, who have lived in Biji Village their entire lives, hope she will be the first in the family to attend University.

Chengli's journey from darkness to light is just one of many poignant stories to have emerged from the sight-saving mission of Orbis International, a global nonprofit organisation dedicated to combating blindness in developing countries through a unique combination of volunteerism, medical training and the one-of-a-kind Flying Eye Hospital, an aircraft converted into a humanitarian hospital with wings.

Background and beginnings

Motivated by the fact that 75 per cent of visual disabilities are preventable, Houston-based ophthalmologist Dr David Paton set up ORBIS in 1973 to fight preventable blindness. From a small band of philanthropists, doctors and aviators, news spread of the doctor's noble vision and in 1980, United Airlines donated its oldest DC-8 aircraft to be extensively modified into a fully functional teaching eye hospital.

In the spring of 1982, the Flying Eye Hospital embarked on its inaugural programme in Panama. It would go on to serve more than 12 million individuals in 88 countries and train nearly 300,000 eye health professionals (Chengli's savior, Dr Chen is one of them). Due to the expanding scope and the rising maintenance costs, the first plane was retired in 1991 and replaced by the bigger and newer DC-10, which offered more than twice the internal capacity of the original plane.

A self-sustaining aircraft

We arrive at ST Aerospace in Singapore's Paya Lebar Airbase about 5.30pm after showing our passports and surrendering our mobiles, cameras and camera-phones. No one complains about the tight security or being herded like sheeps, because we know how lucky we are to be here. While this is not the first time Flying Eye Hospital is stopping in Singapore to undergo a maintenance and safety inspection, it has never been opened up for a tour in this part of the world, until now.

On the outside, the plane looks like any other McDonnell Douglas with 3 GE engines. The inside, however, looks nothing like any aircraft I've seen. The front of the plane has been converted into a 48-seater classroom surrounded by cameras, microphones, and video monitors - all part of a sophisticated two-way audiovisual system that enable the trainee doctors to observe live surgery happening in the nearby operating theatre and, most importantly, ask the surgeon questions while the surgery is going on.

"It's the fastest way to learn," explains Hospital Director David Johnson in his introduction.

While operations such as Chengli's are part of its community service, the Flying Eye Hospital is first and foremost a training hospital. To date, over 285,000 medical volunteers have been trained byOrbis. To broaden its reach, DVD recordings of the surgeries are donated to the host country's ophthalmic community for educational purposes. If needed, surgeries can even be telecast to a nearby hospital outside the aircraft.

Fitted with the latest state-of-the-art equipment, the Flying Eye Hospital aims to be a self-sustaining plane. To insure air quality, an air compressor filters air before it is piped into the aircraft. No less than three power sources guarantee maximum uptime during surgery. Eight onboard water filters ensure that the hospital has pure water anywhere in the world - another crucial element in operations.

The operating room is positioned in the most stable area of the plane i.e. the area between the wings of the plane. "Remember that the next time you book a flight," some wise-guy whispers.

Since this is a demo, we only get to watch a video of a real operation. Our initial disappointment turns into shocked fascination when a cataract operation is played on the monitor. It is, to put it mildly, graphic. Even some of us so-called hard-nosed journalists cringe visibly ... I can see why farmer Luo would have qualms about "slicing the eye" of his daughter.

I eye the soft-spoken Dr Joanne Barleta, who gave up a secure position in her home country the Philippines to join Orbis in June 2010, with new admiration. Obviously, this is not a job that everybody has the stomach or heart for.

Orbis relies heavily on volunteers to supplement the core team of roughly 20-strong full-timers. They range from medical volunteers who conduct hands-on training, surgical demonstration, diagnostic and post-operative consultations and lectures; pilots, made up of current or retired pilots from FedEx and United Airlines; as well as members of the public who contribute technical, logistical, and administrative support to the Orbis programme.

The NGO's spirit of volunteerism goes right back to its origins: the current Flying Eye Hospital was bankrolled by three philanthropists.Orbis is also actively supported by corporations like Swiss watchmaker Omega, which has launched various creative initiatives to support its cause. Omega has pledged at least one million dollars in donations over four years towards ORBIS from the sale of the Hour Vision Blue, a special edition wristwatch that was created specially in support of Orbis.

In hindsight

I wonder how many Malaysians can fully appreciate the gravity of these efforts and their impact. Do we realise how blessed we are to be living in a country with an ophthalmologist-per-population ratio of 1:75,000, well above the target norm of 1:100,000?

Other Third World countries, where 90 per cent of the world's visually impaired are found, are not so fortunate. With nearly 40,000 blind children and 1.3 million people afflicted with severe refractive errors, Bangladesh has only 16 pediatric ophthalmologists. Ethiopia did not even have a single optometrist prior to ORBIS stepping in to support Gondar University in 2006.

Even when the numerical odds are better, huge sectors of the rural population have little access to quality eye-care because very few specialists practice outside big cities. Villagers from Wenhua, for instance, have to travel six hours by bus to Kunming to see an ophthalmologist. It's not just the quality of life that is affected, it's life itself.

According to the World Health Organisation, half of the 1.4 million children under the age of 15 who go blind annually die within a year of losing their sight because either they or their parents cannot care for them.

I'm aware that it's easy to talk than act. At time of writing, I've not applied to be an Orbis volunteer. And I doubt if I'll remember half the numbers here two months after writing this article. But there's one thing I'm sure of - I will not take my eyes for granted after hearing the provocative question that Orbis' Regional Director for Asia, Paul Forest, posed. "If you had to put a value on your eyesight, how much would it be?"