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This plane is also an eye hospital. Families leave it with joy, tears

It’s been more than 20 years but Larry Katzen, a Palm Beach County eye surgeon, hasn’t forgotten.

Working with Orbis, the world’s only flying eye hospital, he removed the cataracts of a woman in her late 70’s in Lima, Peru, who had never seen the faces of her children. She went blind at a young age from an eye disease easily corrected by modern medical techniques.

After replacing the opaque lenses of her eyes with new ones, he removed the bandage. The woman’s children, now middle-aged, clustered around.

“She broke out in tears when she saw her children for the first time,” said Katzen.

In Malawi, he removed a benign facial tumor that had grown from a woman’s forehead and hung down to her cheek, disfiguring her and obscuring the vision in one eye.

During the 1980s and ’90s, Katzen made 13 trips around the world — to countries including China, Jamaica, Turkey and Cuba — with the one-of-a-kind Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, a surgical eye center and teaching hospital tucked into an wide-body airliner.

“The people we saw were very underserved and all had tremendously advanced disease which affected their ability to support themselves,” said Katzen. “Before I went, I was doing a lot of cosmetic eyelid surgery. When I came back, I would feel useless. The trips prompted me to do more sight-restoring surgery. For me, the trips were life-changing.”

Last week, the hospital plane made a fundraising stop in West Palm Beach where it showed off its facilities to donors and area medical personnel before its international team of 24 volunteer doctors, nurses and pilots flew to Trujillo, Peru  Sunday for three weeks. A few are permanent employees, but most, like Katzen, rotate in for a week at a time.

Each year, the flying hospital spends three weeks in up to five countries where volunteer doctors and nurses from around the world conduct surgeries while simultaneously training local doctors in sight-restoring operations still rare in parts of the developing world.

After Peru, the aerial hospital heads to Barbados, then Mongolia and Ethiopia.

Orbis International, the non-profit that operates the aerial hospital, estimates than 75 percent of visual impairment around the world can be prevented or treated.

The staff operates on children with crossed eyes, a condition that can cause social isolation and low vision and treat infectious eye diseases that could have been cured with access to simple medications such as antibiotics.

“We see infections like trachoma, caused by a fly, and toxoplasmosis, caused by a worm,” said Dr. Andreas Di Luciano, a Chilean opthamologist working with the Orbis team.

Orbis team members come from all over the world and speak 18 languages, although procedures and training are conducted in English.

“We call it “functional diplomacy,” said Hunter Cherweck, the deputy chief of Orbis’ clinical program, who has been with the traveling eye hospital for more than six years in two stints. “It’s only problematic during the World Cup, when it’s chaos.”

Much of the work involves what Cherwek calls “CGC surgeries” or cataract, glaucoma and corneal operations to reverse avoidable kinds of blindness. Depending on the specialties of the volunteer surgeons, the team might also do plastic surgery around the eye to correct injury from trauma or tumors.

Cherweck says Orbis’ operational motto is “we don’t show off, we show how.”

“While this technology is now becoming available in the urban areas of many other countries, one of our goals is to push it into more rural vicinities,” said Cherweck.

In locations without reliable electricity, the team teaches manual cataract surgery by using surgical knives instead of lasers.

Using cameras set up around the plane’s surgical suite, on the surgeons’ foreheads and inside microscopes, doctors in the plane’s onboard classroom, which looks like a standard airline cabin, can watch the techniques and ask questions in real time. Through a video streaming service called Cybersight, the operations are also broadcast to other doctors in the region.

In the past five years alone, Orbis has trained more than 10,000 doctors and nurses around the globe, said an Orbis spokesperson.

The flying eye hospital has been to 90 countries, with Cybersight allowing it to reach almost anywhere in the world, even in war zones.

“We broadcast in Syria, Somalia, Iran and Afghanistan, in places we are not able to take the plane,” said Louise Harris, Orbis’ global communications and marketing director.

Chief nurse Angela Purcell, who was born in Jamaica and lives in London, said tears are a common sight among the staff.

“After surgery and a child’s eye patch comes off, it may be the first time a child can walk toward a parent unaided,” said Purcell. “It doesn’t matter how many times we do it, the feelings are the same. You can’t hold back.”

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