Global medical volunteers open our eyes to a world of hope

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Volunteers are the lifeblood of non-profit organizations, but how many of them rely primarily on volunteers to realize their vision? At the core of ORBIS is its flagship Flying Eye Hospital, the world’s first hospital with wings and most recognizable icon in the fight against avoidable blindness, powered with the help of a dedicated team of volunteer medical professionals from around the world.

Thirty nine million people in the world are blind, but 80 per cent of them do not have to be. ORBIS Canada is part of an innovative non-aligned, non-profit global development organization dedicated to saving sight and eliminating avoidable blindness worldwide. ORBIS responds to the needs of developing nations—where 90 per cent of the world’s blind live—by strengthening the capabilities of local health care professionals to prevent and treat blindness.

Since 1982, the keystone of ORBIS’s work has been transferring sight-saving skills and educating eye care professionals in countries where continuing medical education is an uncommon privilege. ORBIS works carefully to ensure that it is a catalyst for long-term improvements in each program country’s eye care capacities, as well as its government’s commitment to addressing the problem of preventable blindness.

From the time its programs first launched 29 years ago, ORBIS has benefited people in 89 countries, enhancing the skills of 88,000 doctors and over 200,000 nurses and other medical professionals. Medical and eye treatments have been provided to 15 million patients, of which 4.7 million are children.

One of the recipients is Kitonsa Kasozi who was born with misaligned eyes, or a condition called bilateral strabismus, in a village inUganda. From birth, he had double vision from close up and difficulties judging distances. He also had some refractive error and his family saved for a year to pay for his glasses (120,000 UGN shillings). Due to his condition, he could not play outside because the bright sun hurt his eyes and he often bumped into things. Teachers also told his mother that Kitonsa was at risk of falling behind in school because he could not see the blackboard clearly.

In 2010, seven-year old Kitonsa was brought to Mulago Hospital, the largest hospital in Uganda and a partner of ORBIS. There, his mother learned about ORBIS’s sight-saving programs that were helping children like Kitonsa. Kitonsa had a squint in each eye and his condition was common inUganda, so his treatment made an excellent training case. On board the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital, a volunteer ophthalmologist assessed Kitonsa’s condition and determined that if it went untreated, he would have suffered from permanent vision loss.

In less than an hour’s time, Kitonsa’s life was changed forever. An ophthalmologist from Mulago Hospital worked alongside an ORBIS Volunteer Faculty to correct the muscles in Kitonsa’s eyes so that he could see straight for the first time in his life. After the surgery, Kitonsa was all smiles. The successful operation was expected to have an immediate impact on Kitonsa’s vision and local doctors were trained to continue his post-operative assessments.

In school, Kitonsa’s favourite subject is science and he dreams of one day becoming a doctor. With the help of ORBIS and its Volunteer Faculty, Kitonsa has now had his eyes opened to a world of possibilities.

ORBIS’s international faculty of volunteers

ORBIS volunteers join an internationally renowned cadre of experts in ophthalmic care. Driven by their mission to transform lives by providing quality eye care to prevent and treat blindness, ORBIS draws upon an international faculty of more than 500 volunteer ophthalmologists, nurses, anesthesiologists, biomedical engineers, and other critical support personnel to deliver eye care training and treatment in the most underserved regions of the world.

There are currently approximately 45 Canadians who volunteer their time to participate in ORBIS’s global sight-saving missions. “I am grateful for the selfless contribution and commitment that my Canadian colleagues have demonstrated abroad,” says Dr. Francis Law, ORBIS Volunteer Faculty. “Without the support of our Volunteer Faculty we would not be able to teach, train, treat and transform lives in remote parts of the world.” Based inVancouver,British Columbia, Dr. Law has dedicated his surgical expertise and time to ORBIS Canada on several occasions. So far, he has travelled toHaikou,China,AngelesCity, thePhilippines, andSanto Domingo,Dominican Republic, both as a volunteer and visiting faculty member.

Roles of ORBIS Volunteers

ORBIS volunteers donate their time, knowledge and energy to enable learning and improve the quality of patient care around the world. ORBIS recruits trained and certified experts with teaching experience in ophthalmology, anesthesiology, nursing, orthoptics, eye banking and other related eye care fields. Volunteers are matched in accordance to requested subspecialty skill areas. Typical activities include hands-on training, surgical demonstration, diagnostic and post-operative consultations and lectures.

Different training activities are integrated with ORBIS’s year-round country programs and play an essential role in its work to build eye care infrastructure in five priority countries:Bangladesh,China,Ethiopia,India and Vietnam. Regional programs are also underway in Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

Small acts go a long way

It does not take a lot of time to make an immense impact through ORBIS. Most ORBIS volunteer faculty opportunities are short-term, averaging seven days total. A typical week-long program consists of an initial focus on screening and selection of patients followed by hands-on training, consultation and lectures. Additional volunteer opportunities can extend the impact of a one-week visit. Volunteers can elect to participate in ORBIS’s telemedicine initiative, Cyber-Sight®, or choose to host an ORBIS sponsored fellow in their home institution.

Raising awareness of avoidable blindness—and gaining support for programs to prevent millions more from needlessly losing their sight—is another important function of being an ORBIS volunteer. Upon completion of a program, volunteers often share their experiences with the media and participate in fundraising events.

Climb Aboard the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital!

To recognize the instrumental support of Canadians in the implementation of ORBIS’s global sight-saving programs, the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital will be making goodwill visits in Toronto and Ottawa this November 17 to 19 and 22 2011, respectively. This is a rare opportunity for health professionals and the general public to get an exclusive on-board tour of the state-of-the-art surgical and teaching facility, meet ORBIS volunteer eye care professionals and pilots, and learn more about ORBIS’s sight-saving missions in 2011 and 2012. To pre-register for the event or get more information, please go to www.orbiscanada.ca/FEH

“Volunteering with ORBIS has been one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life,” says Dr. Brian Leonard, ORBIS Volunteer Faculty and President, Board of Directors, ORBIS Canada. “I believe I have a responsibility to help my fellow eye care professionals in developing nations to improve the delivery of eye care services, and to ultimately assist in the elimination of avoidable blindness.”

Without the support of its Canadian and international volunteers, ORBIS would not be able to continue working towards its vision of a world in which no one is needlessly blind, where quality eye care, education, and treatment are available to everyone. Help eliminate avoidable blindness and learn more about ORBIS Canada and its Volunteer Faculty at www.orbiscanada.ca or call toll-free at 1-877-672-4722
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