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Orbis, the Flying Eye Hospital makes stop in West Palm Beach

Posted at 6:59 PM, Mar 09, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-09 18:59:56-05

You've probably wondered about a very peculiar-looking plane sitting on the tarmac while driving past Palm Beach International Airport.

Turns out, it's actually a hospital with wings! And it's part of a groundbreaking effort to bring the gift of sight to patients across the world.

Orbis -- the Flying Eye Hospital -- is making a pit stop in West Palm Beach. It makes a few stops on American soil each year but mostly spends time overseas. 

The U.S.-based non-profit flies a crew of doctors and nurses around world, treating and preventing blindness in struggling countries and regions.

"There's nothing like this," said Dr. David Cherwek, clinical services deputy chief for Orbis. "Right now, we're going through and getting all of our equipment checked here in Florida so that before we leave for Peru, everything has been calibrated, fixed and cleaned."

The plane is a fully functioning ophthalmic teaching hospital on board an MD-10 aircraft.

"No matter where we are in the world, we generate our own power, purify our own water and filter the air," said Dr. Cherwek. "So this is a U.S. accredited hospital that we can bring anywhere in the world."

Dr. Cherwek gave WPTV a tour of the plane, showing us the fully functional operating room.

"It's one of the most special operating rooms on earth. Not only can it go anywhere and be completely self sufficient but in this room, we'll have people from seven different countries working together to give one patient their sight."

There are nurses from China and doctors from Canada or Jamaica -- breaking down the borders and the walls between cultures.

"It's a great example of functional diplomacy where everyone is working together on one thing: giving this patient the best outcome and doing the most training possible," said Dr. Cherwek.

The room is fully functional for surgeries like retina, cornea or glaucoma procedures. They can also do laser treatments for things like diabetic eye disease inside a special laser room.

"The operating room is located over the wings, which is the most stable part of the aircraft, so even when we've parked and operating, sometimes the wind will cause the plane to shift a bit," said Dr. Cherwek.

The plane also has a recovery room for patients.

"It's just touches you deep in the heart, to go to those places where they are lacking resources and to be able to bring a little something that makes their life better," said Monelle Ross, a staff nurse from Canada now working on Orbis.

Besides treatment, another very important aspect of the aircraft is the training capabilities.

"With our volunteer faculty who come from over 26 countries, we try to bring in the best trainers," said Dr. Cherwek.

Using state-of-the-art classrooms and simulation rooms, the staff trains doctors across the world to stop the spread of blindness that's otherwise easily preventable or treatable.

"We may be for example in Bangladesh but we have viewers from all over the world, watching the surgery, asking questions, participating in lectures," said Dr. Cherwek. "We train anesthesiologists, we train nurses as well as the surgeons. So we all work together on these patients to give them the best outcomes and give the best training."

The goal is to train doctors, nurses and medical technicians in other countries so that they can save a restore sight within their own communities. It's vital access to resources those areas otherwise would never have.

"Trying to reach as many people as you can so that eventually they can be able to sustain themselves, stand on their feet without us," said Ross.

The aircraft is actually a cargo plane donated by FedEx with volunteer pilots from the company.

"We get to fly a one of a kind airplane," said Gary Dyson, the volunteer chief pilot for Orbis. "You see people receive their sight. It's just amazing what a life changing event it is for them."

The hospital is in West Palm Beach for a huge fundraising event to help continue their global mission.

Orbis leaves by the end of the month for it's next mission in Peru and beyond. The non-profit also partners with local hospitals and public health agencies across the world.

The Orbis program has been operating since 1982. In just the past five years, the project has completed more 300,000 eye surgeries and laser treatments on people around the world.

There are currently 253 million people in the world who are blind or visually impaired. About 1.4 million of those people are children.