Page last updated at 09:12 GMT, Friday, 11 September 2009 10:12 UK

World's only flying eye hospital

By Michelle Roberts
Health reporter, BBC News


On board the world's only flying eye hospital

On approaching the flying eye hospital, it looks like any of the other passenger jets on the runway waiting to take holidaymakers to exotic destinations.

But this DC-10 jet is exceptional - it houses the only airborne operating theatre for eye treatment in the world.

Its mission is to tackle avoidable sight loss and its charter reaches developing countries where 90% of the world's 45 million blind people live.

Next stop is India, a country that has one of the highest rates of blindness among children - one in five of the world's blind children is Indian.

Hospital with wings

The flying eye hospital was the vision of one man, Dr David Paton, an eminent eye surgeon at the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, US.

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In the 1970s, while touring throughout the developing world, he was shocked by the state of eye care services he found in these countries.

Although the doctors he met there wanted to learn the necessary skills to cure blinding diseases like cataracts, glaucoma and retinoblastoma, the costs and practicalities involved prevented it.

Dr Paton's solution was a mobile teaching hospital.

With a fully equipped plane, donated by United Airlines, doctors trained in the latest ophthalmic techniques could bring their surgical knowledge and skills to the doctors and patients in developing countries.

The local doctors can then use their newly learned skills in their homeland.

The first hospital with wings was launched in 1982, its maiden voyage being to Panama.

Since then, the flying eye hospital has visited 75 countries and saved the sight of tens of millions of people.

Scrub room

Once you board the aircraft, you enter a 48-seat classroom at the front of the plane, where doctors gather in the passenger seats for lectures and discussions, and to watch live broadcasts of surgical procedures being performed in the nearby operating theatre on the in-flight entertainment-style big screen.

As you walk down the main corridor towards its tail, the landscape changes from aeroplane to hospital.

Richard Mwaluko
Richard had his squint corrected on-board the plane

There is a waiting room, an examination room and a laser eye treatment area.

Next, at the middle and most stable part of the craft, is a fully equipped operating theatre with an adjoining scrub room where the surgeons prepare.

The rear houses a peaceful yet cheery recovery room, with a row of beds adorned with teddy bears, fluffy ducks and a toy piglet.

Its bowels, reached by a snug elevator for one, hold all the necessary power generators, air filters and water system gadgetry that allows the grounded hospital to function self-sufficiently for weeks on end and in any location, even a desert.

The 21 crew members, including doctors, nurses and biomedical engineers and flight mechanics, are flown from country to country for up to 10 months of the year by United Airline pilots who volunteer their services.

Onboard operations manager John Kona said: "It is a really tough schedule and it takes dedication.

"You are away from your friends and family for all but two months of the year, living out of a suitcase and working seven days a week.

Latin America and the Caribbean

"But when you see the smile on the faces of the children you help, all of that just melts away."

One of the millions of children the ORBIS flying eye hospital team have helped is three-year-old Richard Mwaluko from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

At six months of age he was diagnosed with a rare type of squint, a condition that causes his eyes to turn in the wrong direction.

Richard's mother, Mary, knew there was little she could do about her son's condition because she had no money or connections.

Richard did not look like other children and, as he grew older, began to feel insecure because he was different.

Mary was afraid Richard would grow up ridiculed by others and she decided to make the difficult journey to a far away hospital to seek help.

She arrived at the hospital only to be told that they could not treat Richard's condition, and that without treatment he could lose the sight in that eye.

But hope was not lost as the doctor mentioned that the flying eye hospital was due to visit Dar es Salaam.

The operation on the aircraft was a success and although Richard will need follow-up surgery in the future, he can expect a life with good vision.

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