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Flying Eye Hospital fights avoidable blindness around the world

Ophthalmologist Omar Salamanca bent over his work, demonstrating a detail of eye surgery for colleagues as they stood inside a Boeing MD-10 airplane Saturday at Oakland International Airport.

Salamanca is a staff eye doctor at the Flying Eye Hospital, a converted airplane that has been used to train about 10,000 doctors, administer 12.5 million eye exams and perform 350,000 eye surgeries in developing countries around the world over the last five years. The airplane was repurposed as a classroom and hospital complete with operating room by New York-based Orbis International, a nonprofit that fights avoidable blindness.

Salamanca said:

“The main purpose of our mission is to show doctors different ways to do surgery to improve their skills.”

While surgeries are regularly performed in the operating room on the plane, Salamanca was demonstrating the surgery on a dummy head.

Salamanca said:

“We are leaving Aug. 13 for Hue, Vietnam, where we will work with around 30 local doctors.”

While he is employed by Orbis, the nonprofit has hundreds of volunteer doctors as well.

The Flying Eye Hospital was parked free Saturday at a hangar courtesy of the Oakland airport in order to stock up on eye drops, bandages, gloves and other items before leaving for Vietnam.

Spokeswoman Louise Harris said:

“We have treated patients in parts of Africa, India, China, Bolivia and Peru.”

Generally, the doctors do four or five cases a day working with local patients during a visit as teaching demonstrations, she said. When the doctors perform surgery on the plane, their observers aren’t in the operating room. The surgery is projected on a large screen in a 46-seat training room on the airplane.

Orbis International’s flying hospitals got started in 1982. The MD-10 is the third plane the nonprofit has used. It was donated by FedEx, and it is piloted by volunteer pilots who work at FedEx.

Capt. Gary Dyson, one of the FedEx volunteer pilots, said:

“I’ve been doing this for 19 years and I wouldn’t give it up for anything.”

Dyson said:

“When you see a little child get their vision back, it grabs you by the heart.”

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