The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Flying eye hospital on southern surgery sortie

Chennai, Nov. 10: The world’s only flying eye hospital — SightFlight DC-10 — is in Chennai on its 13th trip to the country.

Orbis International, a New York-based non-profit humanitarian organisation that is sponsoring the visit, works in developing countries “to save sight, through hands-on training, public health education and improved access to eye care services”.

Equipped with a surgical suite, laser treatment area, recovery room, a 52-seat classroom with videographic facilities and technical support areas, the plane functions as an ophthalmic training centre as well.

“We have a total of 23 staff, including ophthalmologists, nurses and biomedical technical staff, besides a visiting faculty,” said Ray Leclair, the DC-10 director.

The current mission will conduct 50 eye surgeries, both inside the aircraft and in the host hospitals with which the plane programme is tied up.

The training programme would benefit nearly 100 eyecare personnel in Chennai — doctors, nurses, optometrists, opticians and biomedical engineers.

“It is after two years of preparation that this plane has arrived in Chennai,” says Preeti Singh, programme manager at Orbis India Office in New Delhi. “We have networked with leading hospitals like the Regional Institute of Opthalmology in Chennai, the second oldest eye hospital after the one in London, the Madras City Ophthalmic Association and Sankara Netralaya.”

Chennai already boasts of eye care facilities comparable with the best in the world. So what is special about the DC-10 plane programme'

When this question was posed to eye surgeon S.S. Badrinath, chairman of Sankara Netralaya, he said: “Since most equipment on board the DC-10 is state-of-the-art, this programme is a good exposure, particularly to our post-graduate students who can have a glimpse into the exciting world of ophthalmology.”

Leclair added that in going from place to place, the plane exposes its targeted audience to the latest technology. “The aircraft’s training facility is unique,” he said, pointing to the audio-visual equipment.

“As many as 40 people can view live an eye surgery being performed here, which we cannot do in a local hospital.”

Leclair said: “Our commitment to India is long term.”

The flying hospital “has already done 12 programmes in cities across India since 1989”, added G.V. Rao, India director, Orbis. This time, it has dovetailed a one-week programme in Salem.

Emphasis has to be placed on identification of children in the blindness prevention programme as “India houses 19 per cent of the world’s blind children”, Rao said. What is more, “four out of 10 blind children in India need not be blind”.

Patients and the training programme participants for this mission have already been chosen with the help of the host hospitals.

Access to the aircraft is governed by tight regulations, with every entrant being cleared by the Bureau of Aviation Safety in New Delhi because the sponsors do not want to take chances after the September 11 attacks. The Chennai trip was to have been made last year but was postponed after the terror strikes in the US.

With the help of the Ronald McDonald House of Charities, Orbis has been able to help the Dr Shroff Charity Eye Hospital in Delhi to expand its activities and has extended support to Sadguru Netra Chikitsalaya, a rural eye hospital situated in an area bordering Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Orbis’ SightFlight, in collaboration with the health ministry in Beijing, has helped to train more than 13,000 Chinese doctors and nurses in the course of its series of plane-based programmes there. Orbis had established the first of its five country-based programmes in Ethiopia in Africa, where 1.5 million people are estimated to be blind.

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