|The new MD-10 (photo courtesy of ORBIS)
By Sienna Kossman
In the 1970s, Houston ophthalmologist Dr. David Paton envisioned using aviation to deliver medical care to the eyes of the world.
Thirty years later, the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital (FEH) has traveled to more than 89 countries, treating more than 18.8 million blind and visually impaired people.
The ORBIS FEH is also the only airborne ophthalmic training facility in the world, providing hands-on training to eye care professionals and passing on the latest medical advances in treating and restoring sight.
"We are very proud to say that we have been doing this for 30 years," said Jing Barleta, an on-board FEH doctor.
Now ORBIS is about to replace the current aircraft to further improve services.
The current aircraft, a DC-10 put in service since 1994, is 171 feet long with a wingspan of 156 feet and a gross weight of 300,000 pounds.
Its customized interior holds an operating room, 48-seat classroom, audiovisual studio, communications center, patient recovery room, instrument sterilization area, and cargo space.
The ORBIS FEH relies heavily on donations and private funding, so when a major supporter began to convert all its DC-10s to MD-10s, ORBIS began carefully examining its options.
"FedEx was in the process of converting all their DC-10s to MD-10s in 2008," said Jack McHale, Flying Eye Hospital project director. "Because we heavily rely on volunteer FedEx pilots, and the number available of DC-10 pilots is reducing dramatically, it became evident that a tremendous amount of support would be lost."
Not only did ORBIS want to maintain the support it has been so fortunate to have, but it wants to maintain its core mission and services, which is just what a new aircraft would encourage.
"We like to engage our partner countries over the long term, which means maintaining affordability, sustainability, and accessibility," said Celeste Robinson, onboard ORBIS program manager.
An MD-10 donated by FedEx will house the ORBIS ophthalmic surgery teaching hospital for at least the next two decades while maintaining and expanding on the hospitals well-known features.
In 2010, the ORBIS international board of directors approved the pursuit of a modular design concept for the MD-10 FEH that will drastically reduce conversion costs and increase configuration options.
"We have to meet medical and aviation standards, so to keep costs down, the hospital is being built in separate containers so all areas don't have to be FAA certified," McHale said.
The modular design concept requires a cooperative effort and would not be possible without generous donations from FedEx, a $10 million gift from ORBIS co-founder (and FlightSafety International founder) A.L Ueltschi, and an engine donation from United Airlines.
The hospital containers, which will house the same kinds of areas found in the current plane, are being constructed by Mobile Medical International Corporation (MMIC), which specializes in outfitting medical space in semitrailers. MMIC and ORBIS are working closely together on the interior design and installation process.
"Having a hospital embedded in an airplane, with a classroom, is just phenomenal," McHale said. "It's been incredible. I've been associated with this organization for over 20 years, and I'm still amazed."
Operating costs also decline with the MD-10. First, only two pilots are necessary, instead of the three required for a DC-10 by eliminating the flight-engineer position.
Upgraded avionics also cut the costs of crew training and equipment maintenance.
The MD-10 also promises increased medical capacity and expands the FEH's range to 6,000 miles from 4,000 miles.
The MD-10 FEH will also have separate changing rooms and special feet and hand washing facilities to accommodate cultural and religious differences encountered around the world and within the staff.
The new aircraft's transformation is set to be complete by 2013.
"It's going to be a better hospital in a better aircraft," McHale said.
For more information on the new ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital and the organization, visit www.ORBIS.org.