Blog submitted by Dr Sophia Pathai
Dr Pathai is a Staff Ophthalmologist on the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital
In the UK, September heralds the beginning of a new academic year for students. As I sit and write this blog in a café in central London, I see parents with young children and students flocking to shops, stocking up on the back to school essentials, including school uniform. I smile wryly, as I too will be picking up new items for my uniform for my impending return. However, this isn’t a school uniform, and I’m not returning to further my education. The uniform I am referring to is the recognizable navy and khaki combination of the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital team, and is completed by my ORBIS wings which I will proudly be pinning to my blazer lapel. I will be returning to the Flying Eye Hospital, our unique DC-10 aircraft fitted to teach and train eye care professionals across the globe.
That’s where the similarity with students ends. The Flying Eye Hospital has been on a program break, however, the team members have been on anything but a summer recess. The Flying Eye Hospital conducted its last teaching and training program in Nairobi, Kenya in June. It was a great success, with doctors receiving training and patients receiving sight-restoring treatments. The plane is now is waiting to take us on our next program cycle commencing mid-September to Jaipur, India, and Chittagong, Bangladesh. There is still a lot of work for the Flying Eye Hospital and her team this year!
During this time, the ‘behind-the-scenes’ activities that lead to the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital programs being such a success relentlessly continue. As a Staff Ophthalmologist, this involves participating in ‘planning visits’ where members from each of the arms of the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital team (medical, nursing, engineering, administration, communications) travel to meet with the host hospital(s) for our programs. Planning visits are just that – meticulous planning to make sure that our two-week programs run without a hitch, as well as attaining all the educational and training goals set in collaboration with our hosts.
I particularly enjoy this aspect of my job – it pushes my ophthalmology and public health skills to the limit. We meet with our host hospitals and firstly discuss the epidemiology of eye disease in their region; this means playing detective and finding out whom in the population has eye disease, how many are affected, and how treatment can be accessed. Once we know what the populations needs are, we also need to find out what the eye care provider’s needs are. Perhaps there is a great deal of childhood blindness in a region, but not enough ophthalmologists are trained in pediatric ophthalmology. Or maybe there is a lot of corneal blindness, but relatively little expertise in corneal transplant surgery. We discuss these issues with the host doctors, and then devise a training program to encompass the ophthalmic sub-specialties for which they require further training. This program is not just medical – my Flying Eye Hospital colleagues interact with their respective counterparts to create effective and educational biomedical engineering, nursing and anesthesia programs.
Sometimes I find myself at meetings I never would have dreamt I would attend as a medical student. I meet with ministers of health from countries all over the world, key policy makers and stakeholders, and we discuss issues related to eye care and training. Sometimes, for a doctor the meetings can be surreal; I have participated in meetings at airports to request permissions for the Flying Eye Hospital to land, and I especially remember a discussion about take-off weights and whether the length of the runway was adequate for our densely-packed aircraft (that’s the equipment, not the crew!). To me, some of the aviation terminology seems like a different language, but all of this information is critical to making the program a success.
When the planning visits are over, the Flying Eye Hospital planning team returns to their respective countries and homes, but this is just the beginning of the process. Program reports are to be filed, outlining the discussions with our hosts, and detailing the aims and objectives of the program. Back at ORBIS Headquarters in New York, our excellent Volunteer Faculty Relations Team works with our planning reports and recruits ophthalmologists with the relevant expertise from our pool of esteemed volunteer faculty. The planning for a program takes months and months, and keeps us busy when not ‘on program’. I know it will all be worthwhile when we implement the program, and see the eye care training occurring in so many different ways.
My excitement is increasing day-by-day the plane just finished hosting a Goodwill Tour at Stansted Airport, I am back onboard and in no time at all the entire Flying Eye Hospital team will be together again, united and working as one during our programs in India and Bangladesh. In the meantime I have met some of the crucial people who actually enable our programs to ‘take off’ – our donors, sponsors, and supporters – at the Goodwill Tour, thank you!
The ORBIS planning team meet with officials from Chittagong Airport to discuss the upcoming program. From left to right: Dr. Murtaza (doctor on host team from Chittagong Eye Infirmary and Training Complex, Imrul Hasan Khan (ORBIS Bangladesh Program Manager) Sophia Pathai (Flying Eye Hospital Staff Ophthalmologist), Rebecca Saxton-Fox (Flying Eye Hospital Administrative Co-ordinator)