It was late summer when Dr. Carlos Solarte sought interest from the resident group. Dr. Solarte, the previous director of the ORBIS plane and the current director of the ophthalmology training program at the University of Alberta, was inviting residents to join an upcoming ophthalmology trip to Cameroon. Two of the residents from the University of Alberta Department of Ophthalmology joined ORBIS in October of 2017 during a trip to the capital city, Yaoudé.
This was my first international trip with an ophthalmology group. The medical team was diverse: ophthalmologists from the United States, Brazil, Peru and Columbia, biomedical engineers from America and South Korea alongside nurses from around the world. The program director of a Canadian ophthalmic technician program was leading a week long course for local technicians. On occasion, I joined her to do formal classroom instruction. Cameroon is a largely French speaking country, and we both enjoyed the challenge of teaching in our second language. I also worked closely with a glaucoma specialist from the Will's Eye Institute in Philadelphia as she guided local ophthalmologists through performing sight saving glaucoma procedures known as trabeculectomies.
Photo: Jody Piltz-Seymour (Will's Eye Institute, Philadelphia) teaching a local surgeon to perform the trabeculectomy procedure for glaucoma treatment.
It was a highlight to see patients sing to and hug their surgeons after undergoing surgeries. Glaucoma is the leading cause of irreversible blindness in the world. While many challenges to providing eye care in developing countries remain, it is paramount to empower local governments and physicians to prioritize vision and eye health.
ORBIS is most well known for its aircraft, which functions as a fully equipped operating room and classroom. The surgery performed is life changing. On my first mission to Cameroon, I witnessed an American surgeon restore patients' sight with cataract surgery, and perform vision saving glaucoma surgery, a French retina specialist using retinal lasers to prevent blinding complications of diabetic disease, and a Canadian pediatric strabismus specialist correcting kids' eye alignment to improve both their visual and social potential amongst their peers.
While surgery is always a highlight and much appreciated aspect of Ophthalmological mission trips, I found that the emphasis on teaching was perhaps even more impactful. The front half of the ORBIS plane maintained its airplane seating to serve as a classroom. Local practicing Ophthalmologists and Ophthalmology resident doctors alike came aboard the plane for sessions meant to give them the knowledge and tools to be able to perform more surgeries themselves. Helping local surgeons improve their skills and confidence enables them to continue helping their patients even in the absence of international support. Live surgeries being done in the back of the plane were broadcast to the front of the plane so that all participants could have the "surgeon's view" of each procedure in the classroom. Lectures on a myriad of topics were also given by the international surgeons. Since only one or two surgeons could participate with the international teacher in each surgery, other teaching tools were used. These included use of computerized cataract surgical simulators, and wet lab sessions with model eyes for glaucoma surgery and suturing.
Myself giving a lecture in the ORBIS classroom
Dr. Charles Cole (Cornell University) leading a Glaucoma wet lab teaching session using model eyes in a Cameroon hospital
Empowering local surgeons to independently perform Ophthalmologic procedures enables these missions to be sustainable, and helps to improve both the current and the future of local healthcare. It inspires me to think about other ways to improve the future of healthcare when participating in international missions.
Dr. Laurent Velasque (France) using the EYESI surgical simulator