Why a Flying Hospital is in North Texas

Last week, a fully functional hospital built on an MD-10 cargo plane spent several days at Fort Worth’s Alliance Airport to give Caribbean eye doctors the tools they need to better treat their patients.

Although it may sound like a Mad Libs lede, it’s the truth. The Orbis Flying Eye Hospital has been traveling the world for 40 years treating patients and training healthcare professionals to improve their care. The aircraft offered by FedEx is a fully accredited ophthalmic education equipped with an operating room, a pre-operative and post-operative room and a classroom that can follow live operations. It has landed in 95 countries, where it treats patients and serves as a teaching center for local practitioners.

Orbis International is a nonprofit organization committed to eye care that operates health education, training, and service programs worldwide in addition to the Flying Hospital. In fact, 80% of Orbis’ work consists of long-term projects around the world. The goal is to make the view 1.1. billion people worldwide living with vision loss. Much of this loss can be corrected with a fifteen minute surgery. So what was the plane doing in North Texas?

Fort Worth-based eye-care device giant Alcon is a longtime sponsor of Orbis and has donated much of the equipment on board the plane. The plane came to North Texas to train about 50 Caribbean medical professionals on the plane and at the Alcon Experience Center, a training facility where eye doctors train on new equipment. This is the first in-person training since the start of the pandemic. A mix of Alcon and Orbis employees teach students, including nurses, ophthalmology residents, and biomedical engineers.

The Fort Worth training focused on eliminating cataracts, the leading cause of blindness worldwide. But after a fifteen-minute procedure, cataracts can be corrected and sight restored. These healthcare workers will take what they have learned back to their home clinics to multiply the impact of the organization.

Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee

When the plane lands in a location, many of which are in Africa and Asia, the doctors see their regular patients on board. This provides consistency for patients if they need follow-up for their care. Providers see between 200 and 400 patients at each stop. Treatment and training are free for patients and healthcare workers, respectively.

Eye exams during these stops can impact more than eye health. “There are more than 275 different health conditions that can be detected by an eye exam,” says Alcon Foundation Board Member Rick Weisbarth. “If a person has high blood pressure, diabetes, multiple sclerosis or even a brain tumor, all of these things can be detected by an eye exam.”

The plane itself is an engineering marvel. The sections of the aircraft were built in a modular way and placed on board. They include a 40-seat classroom, an administrative office, a fully equipped operating theater and a patient waiting room. It is equipped with everything you would expect from a standard hospital, including negative air pressure capabilities and water purification systems. As a result, the plane is much heavier and can only carry enough fuel for an eight-hour flight.

The hospital includes the latest medical equipment and an advanced audio system that allows students in the classroom to watch 3D video of operations in the operating room. Students can ask questions during surgery, and the surgeon can answer. In a typical university hospital, only a handful of students can get such detailed insight into the surgery, but 40 students have a similar experience on Orbis’ plane.

During my visit, some trainees were undergoing virtual training, others were practicing cataract correction on an ocular prosthesis, and others were working with a high-fidelity mannequin. The medical societies choose the people who will participate in the training and contribute to the costs of participation.

The pandemic has forced Flying Eye Hospital to rely on virtual education for the past two years, but it’s now back to traveling the world for in-person training and treatment. “Although the aircraft has continued its mission virtually for the past two years, it is an unmistakable sign of hope, a chance to pick up where we left off and an opportunity to apply new innovations to our fight against avoidable blindness,” Derek said. Hodkey, President and CEO of Orbis International via press release.


Will Maddox

Will is the editor of CEO magazine and editor of D CEO Healthcare. He wrote about health care…

Previous A multidimensional approach to journalism safety
Next Letters: Real estate transaction | For-profit rodeo