Orbis Flying Eye Hospital Hosts Canadian Astronauts Bridging Space and Earth Medicine

The Orbis airplane parked at Ottawa International Airport for the first time in more than a decade. It visited between May 31 and June 2, 2019. Credit: Elizabeth Howell/SpaceQ.

OTTAWA – Volunteer staff from a state-of-the-art “flying eye hospital” hosted astronauts and demonstrated their operating skills at the Ottawa International Airport this weekend.

Parked near the Canada Reception Centre that hosts delegates during diplomatic visits, Orbis International brought media aboard the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 to see how doctors perform eye surgery and train local physicians on dozens of worldwide trips every year.

Every child who receives an operation on board the airplane receives a complementary teddy bear. "Teddy" undergoes the same eye procedure as the child, to make the operation less scary
Every child who receives an operation on board the airplane receives a complementary teddy bear. “Teddy” undergoes the same eye procedure as the child, to make the operation less scary. Credit: Elizabeth Howell/SpaceQ.

The international non-profit organization prides itself on forming long-term relationships after visiting remote countries, ranging from Ethiopia to Cameroon to Mongolia. Orbis has more than 40 worldwide active long-term projects and since 1982, trained doctors in 92 countries. Orbis volunteer doctors remain in touch with communities they visit through a mentoring program called Cybersight; some international friendships in the program stretch back decades.

“We want a gifted and experienced surgeon – not someone at the beginning or the twilight of their career, but someone at the peak. They’re smoking hot,” said Brian Leonard, a retinal surgeon and professor of ophthalmology at the University of Ottawa who is the longest-serving volunteer faculty with Orbis, dating back to its origins in the early 1980s.

Other requirements for volunteer surgeons, he said, include gifted communicators and “nice people” – physicians who are flexible, non-judgmental and able to work with different cultures, in sometimes very isolated conditions. Leonard gives extensively of his volunteer time (he said he is also a member of the board of directors), as well as his personal funds – he and his wife are “big donors” of Orbis.

Retired Canadian astronaut Dave Williams (left) and Orbis volunteer Brian Leonard, a Canadian doctor, discuss a simulated eye surgery during a livestream June 2, 2019
Retired Canadian astronaut Dave Williams (left) and Orbis volunteer Brian Leonard, a Canadian doctor, discuss a simulated eye surgery during a livestream June 2, 2019. Credit: Elizabeth Howell/SpaceQ.

On Sunday (June 2), the organization hosted retired Canadian astronauts Bob Thirsk and Dave Williams – both medical doctors – in a livestream. Thirsk briefly visited the plane before participating in the event at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa’s east end. Williams performed a simulated surgery on the airplane live, commenting on the high fidelity of the simulation to his audience.

Just outside of camera view, several members of the media took pictures of Williams and Leonard as they worked together on the surgery, trying not to get in each other’s way in the crowded space. Later, Leonard said that this operating room is usually quite busy. It’s “very different from my day job”, he said, because of the number of people inside at any one time, and the more frequent conversations – a necessary tool for local doctors to learn how the Orbis volunteers perform procedures.

Orbis performed 5 million screenings and examinations and completed nearly 100,000 treatments in 2017 alone. The organization points out that many common eye conditions leading to visual problems, such as cataracts, are quite treatable with the right expertise. So Orbis frames itself less as a remote surgery facility, and more as an organization that forges tight connections with communities so that local doctors can continue to perform these procedures.

This means that, for example, the volunteer physicians will often leave the plane and meet with local doctors right at their hospitals or medical practices. The doctors are trained on their own equipment, in conditions that they recognize, because the state-of-the-art facilities on Orbis may not be reflective of their local practice. That said, the facilities on Orbis are useful for cutting-edge diagnoses; artificial intelligence on board their systems allow Orbis to diagnose diabetes-related eye troubles in only eight seconds, said Louise Harris, the chief marketing officer. “It’s an amazing advancement,” she said.

Eye problems can vary in local communities. Ethiopia, for example, has a large prevalence of trachoma – a contagious bacterial infection that is traced to impurities in the local water. Women tend to have it more often than men, because women are usually the ones handling children – a population highly susceptible to the illness, Harris explained.

The mobile operating room can be packed into the airplane's belly, and brought out again, in a matter of hours. It also has its own independent power and water. This allows Orbis to easily travel between remote locations
The mobile operating room can be packed into the airplane’s belly, and brought out again, in a matter of hours. It also has its own independent power and water. This allows Orbis to easily travel between remote locations. Credit: Elizabeth Howell/SpaceQ.

The plane serves as part classroom, part operating facility and part storage for medical supplies. Visitors ushered in on the rainy Sunday immediately donned protective plastic booties so as not to damage the floor. In small groups, they proceeded from nose to tail in the plane – sitting in the cockpit, taking seats in a 40-person small theatre that can view medical procedures on video, then flowing back into the operating facilities to see how eye surgeries are performed on site. After the visit, Harris added, the entire plane’s interior was sterilized before taking off for its next whistlestop in Toronto. From there, it will host more media before another round of sterilization, and a voyage to Vietnam.

NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins, Expedition 37 flight engineer, performs ultrasound eye imaging in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, flight engineer, assists Hopkins
NASA astronaut Michael Hopkins, Expedition 37 flight engineer, performs ultrasound eye imaging in the Columbus laboratory of the International Space Station. European Space Agency astronaut Luca Parmitano, flight engineer, assists Hopkins. Credit: NASA.

Orbis’ emphasis on self-sufficiency in remote conditions replicates what astronauts try to achieve on the International Space Station. There, astronauts are experiencing changes in eye pressure and in eyesight after several months in microgravity, and NASA is closely investigating to find ways of preventing the issue.

Also, some eye technology tested in space does make its way to Earth. A NASA eye tracking device, originally intended to follow astronauts’ eyesight in space, has been adapted for use in laser surgery. That’s because surgeons must know where the eye is located during the surgery, so as not to interfere with the procedure.

About Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell
Is SpaceQ's Associate Editor as well as a business and science reporter, researcher and consultant. She recently received her Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota and is communications Instructor instructor at Algonquin College.