The history of ORBIS International begins in the 1970s with Dr. David Paton, head of the ophthalmology department at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, and his concerns over the state of eye care services and ophthalmic instruction in developing countries.
Dr. Paton had traveled extensively throughout the developing world as a visiting faculty member. During that time he had observed that the high costs of tuition, international travel, and accommodations prevented most doctors and nurses in those countries from participating in overseas training programs. Even when they could afford to study abroad, their opportunity for direct clinical experience was limited because strict licensing laws often prevented them from performing surgery.
Dr. Paton's solution was a mobile teaching hospital. With a fully equipped airplane, doctors trained in the latest ophthalmic techniques, including pediatric ophthalmology, could bring their surgical knowledge and skills to doctors in developing countries through hands-on training and lectures.
Turning an idea into reality
Dr. Paton discussed his idea with his friend Betsy Trippe DeVecchi, who in turn sought the advice of her father, Pan American World Airways founder Juan Trippe.
Mr. Trippe assembled a team to turn the idea into reality. He invited his daughter, Dr. Paton and A. L. (Al) Ueltschi, founder of FlightSafety International — the world’s largest provider of aviation services — to New York City to map out a plan. This plan laid the foundation for ORBIS International.
Mr. Ueltschi took the lead in moving the concept forward, agreeing to secure a donated airplane, oversee its transformation into a flying eye hospital and continue the effort to keep it flying.
Mr. Ueltschi called every manufacturer and airline he knew in hopes of acquiring an airplane. Eddie Carlson, chairman of United Airlines, came through, agreeing to donate an out-of service and severely disabled short-body DC-8.
The plane was in terrible condition, but a grant from USAID and funds from private donors enabled ORBIS to successfully convert the plane into a fully functional teaching eye hospital, and in 1982 it flew to Panama on its first training mission.
ORBIS sight-saving programs take off
During its first two years of operation, ORBIS doctors, nurses and administrators flew to 24 countries and held programs emphasizing the hands-on transfer of surgical skills. In 1984, their itinerary included return visits to some of their prior host countries, where they evaluated previous programs and taught new skills and procedures. Flying Eye Hospital staff became more international, with staff and volunteers enlisting from numerous nations.
A Flying Eye Hospital program in Africa in 1984 marked a turning point in the evolution of ORBIS. In Malawi, where only two ophthalmologists served a population of seven million, ORBIS expanded its teaching program to include the 28 ophthalmology assistants and 12 nurses who played a major role in providing eye care services to the country's population. Other professionals interested in preventing blindness in Africa, as well as other parts of the developing world, were intrigued by this program.
As a result, ORBIS expanded its curriculum to include not only teaching surgical skills to ophthalmologists but also enhancing the skills of nurses, ophthalmic assistants, public health workers and biomedical engineers. This led to the creation of specialized training programs held aboard the Flying Eye Hospital to further meet the needs of each country's ophthalmic community.
ORBIS’ first major program without the plane was a community eye care program in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1985. Additional requests soon followed for “off the plane” surgical, nursing and biomedical engineering programs in countries previously visited by the ORBIS aircraft, in addition to those countries and local ophthalmic communities not easily accessible by plane.
In 1986, ORBIS formally recognized the need to devote further attention to blindness prevention and public health. A community health department was created at ORBIS headquarters, and community eye care projects were established to implement a broad spectrum of activities to promote eye care as an integral part of overall health care.
Bigger, better plane needed
As replacement parts for the aging DC-8 became more difficult and expensive to obtain, it became clear that a newer, larger aircraft was needed. In 1992, after a major fundraising appeal, ORBIS purchased a wide-body DC-10 to replace the DC-8. Within two years, ORBIS had converted the plane into an eye surgery hospital, with more than twice the interior space of the original DC-8. That summer, the newly renovated DC-10 took off on its inaugural mission to Beijing, China.
Country programs emerge
In 1998, ORBIS launched its first year-round country program in Ethiopia. Country programs in Bangladesh, China, India and Vietnam soon followed.
Permanent ORBIS offices in these countries, run by local staff, develop and implement an array of multi-year projects to improve the quality and accessibility of eye care to residents, particularly in rural areas and impoverished urban communities. Many of these programs focus on the treatment and prevention of childhood blindness, cataract, trachoma and corneal disease.
Based upon a growing expertise and the lessons learned in its five priority countries, ORBIS later extended long-term assistance to Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.
Telemedicine: Providing cost-efficient online consultation
The launch of a global telemedicine program, Cyber-Sight®, in 2003 provided a degree of long-term follow-up to the Flying Eye Hospital in the form of distance mentoring and education.
Cyber-Sight has three distinct program components:
- E-Consultation. Partners in developing countries are linked to expert mentors for patient consultation.
- E-Resources. An electronic library of educational material geared to any ophthalmologist or eye care provider is available worldwide.
- E-Learning. Doctors can take tests covering basic ophthalmology and earn continuing medical education credit.
With Cyber-Sight, ORBIS can offer assistance year-round on an “as needed” basis.
ORBIS’s future: In your hands
What’s next for ORBIS International? New country offices? Extended regional program networks? Additional fellowships? An upgraded airplane?
You can help ORBIS International maintain and even expand its sight-saving mission through your financial support. Please give generously so that others may see.