Orbis' Incredible Flying Eye Hospital

The Orbis flying eye hospital plane sitting on the runway
Chris Jackson / Getty Images

From the outside, this McDonnel Douglas MD-10 aircraft looks like any other MD-10 (or DC-10, for that matter). Here's a fun fact: The MD-10 is really just a DC-10 with an updated Boeing flight deck that requires a minimum of two crew members instead of three. The DC-10 came first, and FedEx had the flight deck modified to make it legal to fly with two crew members instead of three, saving the company loads of money.

In fact, this particular MD-10 might look strikingly familiar to you if you’ve paid attention at all to cargo carriers because FedEx does, in fact, fly MD-10s, and the one pictured above just happens to be an old FedEx aircraft. But this aircraft is not a cargo aircraft. And it is not a passenger jet. It’s not operating for the military or the CIA or the FBI. It's really just an old MD-10 that FedEx donated to a company called Orbis. But what’s inside this particular MD-10 is nothing short of incredible.

You might not have heard of Orbis before now, but it’s a company you should know about because it's quietly changing the world—one eye at a time. In a world where the media dwells on constant negativity, Orbis is a much-needed breath of fresh air. They're really making a huge difference for people who are suffering from blindness and other eye diseases around the world.

Orbis, a non-profit organization devoted to helping people see more clearly, was founded in the 1970s.

And after two other airplanes, the company just announced their third-generation flying eye hospital. Yes, you read that correctly. This MD-10 is a flying eye hospital. In fact, it's the world’s only hospital of its kind, and it’s a working hospital that helps people with vision problems in many, many countries around the world.

It just happens to be a hospital inside of an iconic airplane, which also serves as a mobile marketing unit, spreading awareness of blindness around the world.

But it goes beyond that, even. Orbis' flying eye hospital is a teaching hospital, too. You see, according to Orbis, there are 285 million people in the world who are visually impaired, and for 80 percent of those people, their condition is preventable or curable. For over 25 years, Orbis has made efforts to reduce that number by flying its airplanes to poverty-stricken countries, where it not only provides medical care to women, children and the elderly but also teaches sight-restoring surgeries and blindness prevention, providing sustainable ophthalmological care to local communities. Brilliant.

History of Orbis

With roots beginning in the 1970s, Orbis was created when a group of pilots met up with a group of medical professionals, and with their combined experience in both aviation and medicine, they joined together with a single goal: to bring medical services and the opportunity to educate people in the medical field to countries where resources and money are limited, or where local customs or laws prevent doctors from traveling to participate in or practice their trade in places like America where they could expand upon their skills.

With the cost of travel and the various licensing laws specific to each country and state, medical students and doctors overseas have been limited to studying in their own countries, which means they're often undereducated, unpracticed, or even completely untrained.

The early founders of Orbis knew that if they could provide modern medical services to people overseas, and then follow up by teaching medical professionals in the local communities to perform these same procedures, that they could change lives in a very significant way.

Over the next years, into the 1980s and 1990s, a plan was created to teach physicians and students in other countries through the utilization of a flying eye hospital. Orbis' original aircraft was a DC-8, made possible in part by funds from USAID and in part by funds from private donors.

Orbis converted that DC-8 into the first flying eye hospital, but eventually, the old aircraft became too expensive to maintain.

Today, with a staff comprised mostly of volunteer professionals, the operation has grown considerably, and Orbis is on its third generation aircraft, the MD-10, thanks to the generous donation by FedEx.

Orbis International has partner programs in Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, Cameroon, Ghana, India, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Medical Work

The mission of the flying eye hospital is to fly to impoverished nations to treat children, women and elderly people for various eye conditions, including cataracts, trachoma, corneal disease, and even blindness.

Trained eye care specialists are rare in many countries, so Orbis' volunteer doctors (all doctors and pilots are volunteers) spend their time training local medical professionals in these countries, onboard the flying eye hospital and through an online support service called Cybersight. In addition, the non-profit organization provides medical equipment and surgical supplies to many countries where doctors and medical professionals cannot otherwise afford it.

Here in the United States, we take our healthcare for granted. We, by comparison, have reliable and obtainable healthcare and equally good healthcare facilities. Orbis is working hard to share the wealth by doing their part to help people see again and to train medical professionals in other countries, improving the quality of life for many.

And their services don't end when the airplane flies back home to New York. Orbis also operates a telemedicine program called Cybersight in order to stay in touch with their trainees and continue to mentor them to become successful in their medical professions. It doesn't get any better than that.

Perhaps the most fantastic part of Orbis is that its doctors and professionals aboard the flying eye hospital are all volunteers. Orbis seeks out volunteers who specialize in ophthalmology, including nurses, anesthesiologists, biomedical engineers, and, since research is also a component of Orbis, they utilize ophthalmology residents and fellows, too.

Orbis' website also states that they occasionally need optometrists, orthoptists, and photographers for all three of their divisions: the flying eye hospital, local community healthcare, and for the Cybersight mentorship program.

The MD-10 Flying Eye Hospital

The company’s MD-10, which was donated by FedEx, is custom-designed to fit a fully-accredited surgical suite, a classroom, and treatment rooms. It combines updated avionics, technology, hospital engineering and clinical expertise. According to the company’s website, the aircraft is outfitted with “the latest in 3D technology and broadcasting capabilities…ensuring that we can train more doctors, nurses, and medical professionals than ever before.” From the onboard classroom or even from medical institutions back home, both students and specialists can view in real time surgeries occurring onboard the flying eye hospital through a 3D camera.

The Yuen Yee Operating Room provides a place for surgery, which often doubles as a place for teaching local medical professionals how to do certain procedures. A laser and exam room provides a place to do laser surgery, and there is also an instrument sterilization room, which offers the opportunity to provide instruction to local medical professionals on the sterilization of equipment and instruments. In the recovery room, nurses in training can assist in caring for surgical patients while practicing their pre- and post-op nursing skills.

The pilots of the MD-10 are volunteer pilots who also fly for FedEx or United Airlines, and who receive all of their training courtesy of FedEx.

World Impact

According to its website, Orbis has served people in over 91 countries, trained over 30,000 medical professionals, and provided over 2 million screenings and exams for children, women, and others through the services provided by the flying eye hospital and the company’s other programs. It’s inspiring to think that a single company—one most people have never heard of—can provide such a dramatic, life-changing experience for so many people. Regaining sight is life-changing without a doubt. And as Orbis states, by giving sight back to women and children, the entire community benefits from a happier, healthier, more productive community member.

In addition to the flying eye hospital, the local instructional programs, and the Cybersight online mentorship programs, Orbis also furthers research in the ophthalmology fields and advocates for better eyesight across the world, working with companies like the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, the World Health Organization, FedEx, L'occitane, and USAID.

It's easy to see the good that Orbis is doing. But if you still need convincing, check out some of the stories from patients and family members on the company’s YouTube channel. You will be moved by their stories, grateful for your own healthy vision, and perhaps inspired to help.

Orbis Today

Orbis is currently flying around the world in their MD-10, a third-generation aircraft that will fly to different countries giving tours and raising awareness for blindness and vision disorders. There are a lot of people out there who can benefit from the type of intervention and teaching the Orbis does.

By teaching local medical professionals how to perform sight-restoring procedures and by providing the necessary supplies and equipment, Orbis is changing lives of people around the world, and through those people, changing the world. Someone who is blind or lost their sight through disease or cataracts can now see, can now care for her children, can now work and support a family, can now educate her children, can now participate fully in her community, can now contribute to their society and to the world in a more complete and inclusive way. Orbis is a success story, no matter how you look at it.

Tour Orbis' MD-10 flying eye hospital.