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Third Generation Flying Eye Hospital Set For Departure


Orbis International is planning to take a “new” Boeing MD-10 Flying Eye hospital on its inaugural work trip next month, a back-to-the-future mission to China, the augural destination for the first Orbis flying eye hospital, a DC-8, back in 1982.

A non-profit organization that strives to prevent and treat blindness worldwide, Orbis typically completes 10-12 aircraft missions per year, flying doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists – all volunteers – across  the globe to provide hands-on ophthalmology training to health workers onboard the MD-10, a fully accredited teaching hospital.

A key purpose of the organization is to prevent “avoidable blindness”. Orbis estimates that there are 280 million visually impaired people in the world and 80% of them do not have to be: 240 million just need glasses, the other 40 million can be cured if they can afford or have access to eye care. 

Jack McHale, director of the MD-10 program (as well as a former interim president and CEO of Orbis and the former managing director of aircraft acquisitions at FedEx), gave Aviation Week a tour of the MD-10 on a stopover at the Reagan Washington National Airport on June 30. FedEx donated the aircraft to Orbis and a host of other companies provided financial help for the modifications and outfitting.

While the MD-10 performs the same mission as its predecessors – the DC-8 from 1982-1992 and a DC-10 from 1992-2016 – its internals are quite different, explains McHale. Both the DC-8 and DC-10 were passenger aircraft that had to be converted into mobile hospitals, meaning the operating rooms were certified as an integral part of the aircraft, an expensive proposition. 

No so with the MD-10. Aside from the “theater” or teaching area at the front of the aircraft...

...and changing rooms and lavatories at the rear of the cabin, the remainder of the hospital is completely independent of hte airframe and housed in nine 125in. x 217in. x 96in. cargo containers stacked back to back.

The containers were initially loaded through the front 102 in. x 140 in. cargo door, rolled into place, fastened in and hooked up, but there are no electrical or other connections to the aircraft itself, meaning the actual hospital did not have to be certified as part of the aircraft.

From front to back, the cargo containers on the MD-10 hold an administrative office, audiovisual/IT room, laser treatment room, observation area, operating room, sterilization room and recovery area, none of which require input from the aircraft.


Above: Laser Treatment Room

Below: Operating Room

Below: McHale describes the Recovery Room

This means that when the MD-10 lands at a destination, where it will usually stay for about three weeks, the 22 crew members have certain tasks to complete and a few items to obtain from the airport. "We need a set of stairs, a garden hose and a forklift," says McHale. Other than the water they take on, the hospital is self sufficient, thanks to two electrical generators and an air conditioning unit that are stored in belly cargo and taken out at the destination.  

The unique cargo container hospital was built by MMIC, a maker of mobile surgery units (picture the trailer portion of a tractor trailer), based in St. Johnsbury, Vermont. "We went to them and said if we give you three trucks, cut in three, can you put them all together and make a hospital" says McHale, "and they said sure." Built in St. Johnsbury, the containers were then shipped to Victorville, California, where the other modifications were made and the aircraft flight tested by a FedEx crew. 

Orbis holds the patents for the cargo pallet-mobile hospital conversion, and is optimistic the idea might resonate with militaries or government agencies that may be in need of a flying hospital. 

The organization has 19 volunteer pilots, including the two below, all of whom are FedEx pilots offering the services on their own time. They will fly the dozen or so missions per year that Orbis strives to complete, and be flown home on commercial airlines after landing the MD-10 at a new location. When the aircraft is ready to leave again, Orbis flies another crew to the location.  

While FedEx contributes to maintenance costs, Orbis pays the fuel bills, airplane tickets and hotel rooms for the two dozen or so doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists volunteering for a given mission. Orbis has 400 doctors, nurses and anesthesiologist volunteers.

McHale too spends a good portion of his time volunteering, and remains passionate about the work. 

“When you see somebody get a life back because they can see, whether it’s a child or an 80-year-old guy, you know that it’s worth it," he says.

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