About 1.1 billion people suffer from vision loss worldwide. 

Dr. Maria Montero, the head of ophthalmology at the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, took special interest in changing lives through eye care.

“Because my specialty is cataracts, you can change someone’s life with a 15-minute surgery,” Montero said. “It’s the most reproducible surgery so, very quickly, you just remove the cataract and give a person back their independence.”

In 2017, Montero, who practices and lives in Puebla, Mexico, joined the Flying Eye Hospital, a fully equipped and accredited outpatient facility inside of a McDonnell Douglas MD-10 aircraft. 

International nonprofit Orbis designed and operates the Flying Eye Hospital for providers around the world. For 40 years, the Flying Eye Hospital has dedicated its resources to training and teaching eye care to medical professionals, said Alana Calise, the program manager for the Flying Eye Hospital.

In March 2020, during its first training period in the U.S., the Flying Eye Hospital cut its time short in Fort Worth — the COVID-19 pandemic began. Now, in August 2022, the Flying Eye Hospital is back, hosting providers from six countries — Trinidad and Tobago, Dominica, Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana and Antigua and Barbuda. Alcon sponsored the two-week training.

Montero teaches small-incision cataract removal, a manual method of removing cataracts that is commonly used in countries without access to advanced technology.

In some countries, like the United States, as soon as people get a little cloudiness in their eyes, they go to a doctor, they get their cataracts fixed and their eyesight is perfect, Montero said.

“But in other countries, like the ones of the people we teach, maybe they live too far away. Maybe they don’t have insurance, they have to pay for the surgery themselves, or they don’t want to be a burden. So they wait and wait and wait,” Montero said.

The Flying Eye Hospital aids in accessibility to eye care and the training of eye care professionals in countries like the six hosted in August.

Inside the Flying Eye Hospital, there are pre-operation, post-operation and lecture rooms. The lecture room can seat 46 people and cameras and stream footage directly from the operation room for observation.

The Flying Eye Hospital:

Volunteers can sign up here.

Patients are sourced through providers.

Trainings in Fort Worth through Aug. 19

Providers and students are also encouraged to sign up for a free account on Orbis’ Cybersight website, where the nonprofit streams lectures and surgeries. Cybersight has over 56,000 members in over 208 countries, said Jenna Montgomery, the manager of global communications and marketing at Orbis.

Providers may train with simulation surgery and real-life patient surgery to practice. Simulation surgery is particularly useful for newer providers, Calise said.

“Especially for surgeons who may be early in their residency or haven’t had a lot of surgical experience, doing simulated training is proven to improve their patient outcomes,” Calise said. “Much like in aviation, you would definitely want your pilot to have done simulated aircrafts — aircraft takeoffs and landings — before they ever got behind the joystick of your airplane. You’d want your surgeon to have the same mobile experience.”

The Flying Eye Hospital is stationed in Alliance and will travel to San Francisco for its next stop.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify how providers train on the Flying Eye Hospital.

Cristian ArguetaSoto is the community engagement journalist at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him by email or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Cristian is a May 2021 graduate of Texas Christian University. At TCU, ArguetaSoto served as staff photographer at TCU360 and later as its visual editor, overseeing other photojournalists. A Fort Worth...