Second Sight

Last month I was lucky enough to be included on a tour of the new Orbis Flying Eye Hospital which visited Hong Kong for a few days. This is the third generation aircraft providing the service, and it is fitted out with the most advanced equipment of its kind.

The basic idea of the Orbis operation is both simple and devastatingly effective. The plane flies to a city in a country where there are many blind people and insufficient doctors trained to perform eye operations. Top surgeons from around the world – mainly American -- carry out a small number of operations on board with dozens of trainee doctors watching in an adjacent room. Cameras in the operating theatre convey in minute detail what is being done so that the skills and techniques are being passed on to others. Films of the operations can also be made available to other doctors not present on the day.

During the tour we heard some tales of the plane’s recent trip to Shenyang in northern China. A Tibetan family brought their six-year-old son on a journey of over 3000 kilometres because they had heard of the legend of the “Angel with Iron Wings” which performed miracles and enabled the blind to see. Their son’s sight was fast deteriorating and they had to find out if the legend was true. It was, and the young boy was squeezed into the operating schedule and saved from a life of blindness.

We heard about the five-year-old Mongolian girl, blind since birth, who was operated on in the morning and woke in the afternoon with her sight fully restored, able to see for the first time in her life. Smiling nurses told of how she couldn’t stop dancing. You could see how much the story meant to all the medical personnel present. And not many dry eyes among the tour party either.

And of course these individual incidents of life-changing miracles were going to be repeated over and over again, hundreds of times, thousands of times, by the doctors who were watching in the adjacent room and would be able to take the skills learned back to their own hospitals.

And then we learned that all the doctors who performed the operations were volunteers, providing their services free of charge. And then we learned that all the pilots who flew the planes to the different destinations were volunteers from a famous logistics company using their vacation time to fly the doctors and nurses.

And you simply had to bow your head in awe of these amazing people. Imagine how they must feel as they wing their way round the world transforming every life that they touch.

And the story does not end there. Equipping the plane to carry out the eye operations and film them is an expensive exercise, as is provisioning the aircraft to get from place to place. Orbis relies on donations both for the plane itself and all the operating expenses.

As we descended from the plane I saw a small plaque on the side that read “Thanks to the employees of Fedex for the donation of this aircraft”. Wow, how great they must all feel.

Now, we cannot all be expert eye doctors and we cannot all be pilots. We cannot even all work for logistics companies (and I know that the competitors of this one also provide sterling support for similar worthy causes). But we can all help in other ways.

In a world where it sometimes seems that evil is getting the upper hand, it is wonderful to be reminded that there are also many unsung heroes, out of the limelight, who are fighting for good.

Mike Rowse