The year was 1992 and the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital had landed at Chiang Mai International Airport in the north of Thailand. Its mission: to provide training and mentorship to ophthalmologists and eye care professionals in my country.
At the time I was a young doctor and a third year resident in ophthalmology at the King Chulalongkorn Memorial Hospital in Bangkok, and this was an opportunity not to be missed. I duly travelled to Chiang Mai to attend the Orbis programme.
The Flying Eye Hospital, the original converted DC8, rested on the tarmac in the tropical heat, an agent of change, an icon of hope, and—I came to realise as the programme unfolded—a soundly practical and effective solution to improving the future of those affected by eye disease.
The aircraft had brought a core team of nurses, doctors, and biomedical engineers, plus visiting specialists from the UK, the US, and Canada. Together they delivered a month long programme of structured, hands-on teaching.
Outreach programmes in eye care were not new to me. During my residency training I regularly volunteered with the Thai Red Cross, and every month I would work at a refugee camp on the Thailand and Cambodia border, providing a service to hundreds of patients who were unable to access eye care easily. No one could dispute the need or value of these types of programmes.
Orbis, however, had a different approach. Their programme provided an opportunity to learn, to improve practical skills and use of equipment, and to connect with a worldwide community of ophthalmologists. These were long term, lasting benefits and I wanted to be a part of the programme that imparted them.
I joined Orbis as a fellow ophthalmologist later that year on the island of Cebu in the Philippines on the exact same day my future wife (although I didn’t know that at the time) joined the Orbis crew as a nurse. We travelled with the DC8 for a further 16 months throughout Asia and Eastern Europe.
The experience was truly invaluable. I was able to expand my knowledge and horizons, and form lasting friendships and meaningful connections with professionals at eye institutions across the Globe. Orbis was the platform from which I progressed to train further in vitreoretinal fellowship programmes in both the US and Canada.
Professional development is absolutely key to providing quality care and for continuing development of in-country medical training and research programmes. Some four years later, in 1996, I returned to Thailand, where I continue to practise as a vitreoretinal surgeon and teach the next generation of ophthalmologists.
Last year my wife and I went to a reunion of some of the Orbis Crew from those 1992 days. Yes, those connections really do last.
The intervening 24 years have brought much change, and Orbis as an organisation continues to improve, to adapt to new challenges, and expand its reach to those in need. As we reflected on the impact our time with Orbis has had on both our professional and personal lives, I decided I wanted to give something back.
This year I will be running in the 2017 London Marathon to raise money for Orbis. This is a charity that has a far reaching impact on the lives of those affected by preventable blindness and its work is only made possible by donations from generous supporters.
Your support of The BMJ’s appeal will lead to a brighter future for those in need of eye care and will be gratefully received.
Find out how you can make a difference below.
Dr Kittisak Kulvichit works in the Department of Ophthalmology, Faculty of Medicine, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. He is also the chairman of the Office of Research and Academic Integrity. During his time with Orbis, he travelled to the Philippines, China, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Albania.
Donate to Orbis
£239 could provide surgical training opportunities on board the Flying Eye Hospital for two local doctors
£150 could buy six intraocular lenses for cataract surgery
£84 could cover the cost of corrective eye glasses to improve the vision of eight children
Donate online: www.orbis.org/bmj/give
Donate by phone: +44 (0)20 7608 7260
Donate by cheque: Orbis, Freepost RTLK-HLXZ-LKHU, 124-128 City Road, London EC1V 2NJ (no stamp necessary but using one saves sight)