The Liberty Gazette
February 25, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely
Linda: When I turned 50 I had to admit there were times when reading glasses would help. It’s been tough on the ego, but then I consider the millions who cannot see well, or at all. Our local Lions Club is one of the strong supporters of eye care and sight restoration – please, be generous in your support of our Liberty Lions Club.
Where the business of aviation meets the business of ophthalmic is in Orbis, a company that has been bringing sight to the world since 1982. It’s a flying hospital, with destinations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, for two- to three-week missions in-country where volunteer staff train local surgeons and medical personnel. Doctors volunteering with Orbis are preventing and treating blindness in the developing world. Volunteer pilots are getting them there, and volunteer mechanics keep the airplane flying.
Inside the world’s only airborne ophthalmic training facility are 48 seats where trainees attend lectures and watch surgery broadcast live, while they can ask questions directly to the surgeons during the operations. Filling out the rest of the cabin of the DC-10 they’re currently using are a full audio-visual room, a laser room for front and rear cornea and retina repair, a medical simulator, a full operating theater, and recovery area.
Mike: United Airlines donated the first airplane, a DC-8, which served for ten years as doctors taught doctors how to restore sight. But the fuselage didn’t lend itself well to a hospital environment, and by the late 1980’s the DC-8 was being retired (which would soon mean no more qualified pilots), so Orbis executives approached Fed Ex Founder and Chairman Fred Smith for help finding a replacement: a DC-10, which first took off as the new flying hospital in 1992.
The myriad of logistical puzzle pieces require a year’s planning for trips. The airplane hauls tools, equipment, generators, and experts – 22 people go on every trip, including two mechanics. The DC-10 is an out-of-production airplane, so they rely on the aviation community a lot, and Fed Ex has continued their support with donations of parts, labor, and satisfying regulatory requirements.
Upon landing they can set up the hospital in a day and a half. Surgical candidates are selected through a screening process. There’s no telling how many people enjoy restored eyesight because the job is to teach the healers, but Orbis volunteers return and monitor the cases, and provide an e-learning and e-mentoring tele-medicine program for doctors all over the globe. In this way, they’ve reached nearly 300,000 doctors in 77 countries, equipping them to help others.
When the work is done, Orbis volunteers leave videos of the surgical demonstrations so they can be used in further training, and an ORBIS ophthalmologist returns within two months of each program to examine patients and review cases with the local doctors.
Since its time to replace the DC-10, Fed Ex has donated an MD-10 to be outfitted with a modular clinic that was built in Vermont, and shipped to Victorville, California for installation. Expected completion is any day now.
They say 90% of the blind live in underdeveloped countries and that 80% are treatable. Thanks to Orbis, Lions Club, and other eye programs, the World Health Organization’s predictions for blindness have finally started a downward trend.