A decade ago, Dr. James Brandt embarked on a plane from Northern California to Vietnam. When he arrived, he boarded another plane, but this one never left the ground.
That’s because this second aircraft was a mobile teaching hospital complete with an operating room, recovery room, and classroom. The ‘Flying Eye Hospital’ is the brainchild of Orbis, an organization focused on the treatment and prevention of childhood blindness, cataracts, corneal disease, and other eye-related conditions in developing countries.
“Totally hooked” after his 2008 experience, Brandt’s first trip turned into a second, then a third, eventually leading to more than 20 missions and counting, including in Peru, Ghana, South America, Indonesia, China, Nepal, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, and Africa.
“There is something about getting back to the basics of medicine and taking care of patients,” says the pediatric glaucoma specialist, comparing it to the grind of serving patients in the US.
The ‘Flying Eye Hospital’ began 30 years ago with a DC 8; today, it is a McDonnell Douglas 10. According to Orbis, 285 million people in the world are blind or visually impaired simply because of where they live. Working to change that statistic, the organization has trained more than 10,000 doctors, conducted 11.6 million eye exams, and performed more than 340,000 surgeries.
Classifying the mobile hospital as a “technological tour de force,” Brandt, a Professor of Ophthalmology and Vision Science at University of California, Davis, Eye Center, Vice-Chair for International Programs and New Technology, and Director of the Glaucoma Service, is quick to point out that Orbis does not merely fly in as the “great white hope.” Instead, its mission is about sustainability and skills transfer to local doctors, nurses, and other health care personnel in places where the mortality rate for children undergoing surgery is 1 in 200 (in the US, the rate is 1 in 250,000).
“This is not just teaching surgery,” Brandt emphasizes, noting how the plane’s classroom allows real time teaching during surgeries. “It’s about all aspects, from anesthesiology to biomedical engineering to technicians who deal with the equipment. It takes a village to deliver eye care. Orbis trains the village.”
Brandt has created a village of his own, inviting colleagues to join him on these medical treks that last three to four weeks and result in between 6 to 15 surgeries weekly on patients of all ages, many of whom live in remote villages without access to proper nutrition and who walk up to three days for the opportunity just to be screened.
Dr. Mark Mannis, who specializes in corneal transplantation at UC Davis, has accompanied Brandt to Peru three times as well as to El Salvador and Vietnam. He looks toward Jewish tradition to describe his work, generally, and specifically with Orbis.
“The eye in Judaism is sacred,” Mannis explains. “This is a wonderful opportunity to live that cultural legacy of the centrality of vision to life.”
Newcomer and anesthesiologist Dr. Steve Mannis accompanied Brandt and Dr. Mark Mannis (his first cousin once removed) during his inaugural mission to Peru in April.
“It was dazzling to walk on to the plane,” he recalls. “It was an immediate immersion into another world, a feeling of combining high tech and modern state-of-the-art equipment in contrast with being in a third-world setting. We are accustomed in the US to a hierarchal setting. This was a great equalizer.”
Adding that because no available eye tissue is available in Peru, he and his cousin carried a box containing 13 corneas on their outbound flight.
“There is a subtheme of family working together and bonding together as Jews in our community,” he says. “Being Jewish and giving to the world helps humanity.”
The three specialists underline the importance of building local capacity. That’s why, in addition to surgeries and teaching on the aircraft, they work in local eye care centers using the tools and equipment available to local doctors.
“As important as the plane is, it’s about time spent with local nurses and physicians,” Dr. Mark Mannis points out. “When the plane flies away, what they have is their tools and instruments. We leave a legacy of education for local doctors. We teach them and leave our skills behind. This experience infuses you with what being a doctor is all about.”