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VOL. 131 | NO. 121 | Friday, June 17, 2016

Eye in the Sky: FedEx, Orbis Debut Third-Gen Flying Eye Hospital

K. DENISE JENNINGS | Special to The Daily News

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Memphis-based FedEx Express and Orbis International debuted the third-generation Orbis Flying Eye Hospital on Thursday, June 16, at the FedEx World Hub.

The Flying Eye Hospital is the world’s only mobile ophthalmic teaching hospital, which was retrofitted on an MD-10 aircraft donated by FedEx in 2011. The aircraft has been custom-designed to provide the best medical training and technology to patients and health care professionals throughout the developing world. It leaves for its inaugural program in Shenyang, China, on Sept. 2.

“This was a culmination of a lot of years of hard work,” said Mark Yerger, vice president of material management for FedEx Express and a trained aerospace engineer himself who has been working on the renovations of the plane for years. “FedEx donated and there were contributions from a lot of companies around the world, including Boeing and GE, which helped manage the engines. The cost of this plane is in the tens of millions of dollars and couldn’t be duplicated on the open market because it has been such a club effort.”

The Flying Eye hospital is a “sister ship” to the airplanes at FedEx so that the many volunteer pilots who donate their time and talents to fly are qualified to pilot it, said Yerger.

“We at FedEx have invested over 30 years and $20 million into this effort, and it truly is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Yerger. “We are teaching the people who can take care of people for years to come. The leverage of this is huge. There have been 30 million people helped throughout the years, and it’s not just a hospital – it’s a teaching hospital – so we’re leaving equipment, qualified doctors an surgical supplies behind which will help hundreds of people long after the airplane is gone.”

The Flying Eye Hospital is not just a fly-in and fly-out medical operation. Orbis International spends about a year preparing curriculum and planning with partner hospitals in the developing countries that it is scheduled to visit before it arrives, according to Joni Watson, Orbis communications consultant.

“It’s not just a feel-good thing,” said Dr. Steve Charles, a Memphis-based vitreoretinal surgeon and airline transport pilot who has worked with Orbis since 1987. “We are meeting real substantial medical needs with qualified volunteers and doctors as well as full-time employees. We’re treating both children and 80-year-olds who have been blind for 20 years.”

More than 285 million people are visually impaired, and four out of five suffer from preventable conditions, according to information published by Orbis. Ninety percent of these people live in developing countries where they cannot access sight-saving treatments that people take for granted in the United States.

In addition to the surgery and treatment that The Flying Eye offers, there is a public awareness component that teaches health care workers in developing countries simple sight-saving preventive measures such as eye drops for newborns that can prevent eye diseases contracted during delivery.

“There are 4 million blind kids in the world, and half of them don’t have to be,” says Ranck. “If they’re not treated, 60 percent of these kids won’t make it to 6 years old.”

The Orbis Flying Eye has 22 staff, 18 volunteer pilots from FedEx and 400 volunteer hospital staffers from 23 different countries – many of whom are teaching faculty at major medical schools around the world, said Bob Ranck, president and CEO of Orbis International.

One of the biggest upgrades in this third-generation plane is the technology, such as 3-D monitors on board that enable Orbis doctors to train doctors with the added dimension of depth. The Flying Eye is outfitted with the latest lasers, as well as operating and video equipment so doctors can broadcast surgeries from the airplane to the Internet and to a partner hospital for training purposes, Ranck said.

“If FedEx wasn’t supporting us, we wouldn’t have a Flying Eye,” he added.

FedEx, which has been supporting Orbis for 33 years, has extended its financial, logistical and operational support for another five years. Those services will include piloting as well as providing maintenance, ground support, translators and transportation services for Orbis to ensure sensitive medical supplies arrive at the organization’s medical training programs around the world.

“We couldn’t do this without the incredible benevolence of this fantastic corporation, FedEx,” Charles said.

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