UC Davis Medical Center is one of the top 50 hospitals in the nation, and its doctors are able to give first-class care to patients in the Sacramento region.
But for the past few years, a handful of Davis ophthalmologists and professors have extended their care to those in need worldwide through the ORBIS International Flying Eye Hospital.
ORBIS, a nonprofit whose mission is to eliminate preventable blindness in developing countries, uses the FEH to train foreign doctors in modern treatment methods.
According to Dr. James Brandt, professor of ophthalmology and director of the Glaucoma Service at the UC Davis Medical Center, ORBIS is unique in its approach.
“ORBIS is different from many health-related NGOs [non-governmental organizations] in that its focus is on training and the development of infrastructure, not the direct delivery of care – except care delivered as part of training,” said Dr. Brandt in an e-mail interview. “It deals with education, helping local doctors set up infrastructure for self-sustaining programs.“
Prior to arrival, ORBIS receives permission from their host program (usually the health ministry) for the FEH. In addition, the program requires a local medical school or ophthalmology residency program, and a hospital or comparable medical facility with reasonably up-to-date equipment. Finally, the FEH also requires a runway able to land a DC-10 aircraft.
Upon landing for their one week stay, the doctors immediately begin a hectic work schedule.
“We examine patients that are candidates for surgery or other procedures. Local doctors select patients they want us to become involved with, and when we get there the first day, we examine the patients, determine if we agree with assessment plans, do the procedures with local doctors, and then examine the patients afterwards,” explained Dr. Susanna S. Park, an associate professor of ophthalmology and vision science.
During her stay in Trujillos, Peru in February, Dr. Park saw approximately 20 to thirty 30 patients a day, discussing with local physicians different treatments for specific cases. Park said the most rewarding aspects of the trip were the immediate and long-term differences she was able to make by offering her expertise.
“There were patients with diabetic retinopathy, and if they didn’t get proper laser treatment, they would have gone blind, so I know we made a huge impact,” she said.
Dr. Brandt echoed Dr. Park’s sentiments, even when work didn’t deal directly with patients.
“Many of the places we visit have modern equipment sitting in the corner, covered with dust. … ORBIS trains local engineers on how to maintain the equipment,” he said. “In one instance, a regional eye hospital had three operating rooms dedicated to ophthalmology, but two of the three surgical microscopes were broken. By repairing [them] and training the local biomedical engineer on how to maintain the equipment, ORBIS was able to triple the output of the hospital – that’s just as big an impact as training local surgeons in new techniques.“
In keeping with their mission, ORBIS volunteer faculty maintain contact with local physicians after trips to assure that their instruction will pay forward long after they leave.
According to Dr. Annie Baik, a clinical glaucoma fellow at the UC Davis Medical Center who accompanied ORBIS to Peru, the experience continues.
“There’s always a line of communication … and I still e-mail [one of the residents there] regularly,” Dr. Baik said. “I personally learned a lot from what we did there; it gives you a different perspective on medicine, outside from your normal scope of practice.“
Since its inception in 1982, the FEH has visited over 70 different countries and have saved the sight of millions of individuals.
ORBIS‘ humanitarian efforts are made possible by support from various companies, including United Airlines and FedEx, as well as from private individuals.
Visit orbis.org to find out more about the Flying Eye Hospital and information on how to donate.
ANDRE LEE can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.