April 20, 2024

Frequent Flier: A Flying Eye Hospital Raises Security Eyebrows

When I fly back to the United States, I tell my family to give me an extra hour to get through customs and security.

Because of all the stamps on my passports, especially from places like Vietnam, Syria and Myanmar, which are some of my favorite countries, it sometimes takes a while to explain to border agents that I’m a doctor returning from an Orbis program.

How I get from one country to another always raises questions since I could fly into a country on a commercial flight, but fly out privately on the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital. That raises eyebrows with immigration officers in all countries.

I usually carry Orbis annual reports with me to prove who I am and what we do.

Still, I’ve had some trouble convincing agents there really is such a thing as an eye hospital on an airplane. Ours is a DC-10 jet that’s fully equipped to teach and provide eye care no matter where we are in the world.

A few times, I’ve been taken to what I like to call “the room,” that place where you’re questioned more. I’m unfailingly polite, but I’m sure I sound like I’m a few fries short of a Happy Meal because I talk of an incredible Orbis Flying Eye Hospital and nervously say, “Yes, sir,” or “No, sir” so much.

I have no problem stepping up if there’s a need for a doctor onboard a flight. Three times in the past six years, I have responded to a pilot’s call for intervention during a health emergency. I take the person’s vital signs, monitor them and work with the onboard personnel.

I always give my card to the pilot after we land. When they see that I’m an ophthalmologist, it’s like they think, “Oh, great, this guy has been taking care of a really sick person and he’s an eye doctor.” I nicely explain to them that I graduated from medical school and that I’m a “real doctor.”

There’s nothing like the wonder of giving someone in a developing country the chance to see. And it’s very rewarding to train local doctors in procedures that we take for granted.

The members of our medical team come from many different countries. After working 14- or 16-hour days, and coping with extreme conditions, the only thing we ever really fight about is the best team competing in the World Cup.

People like to romanticize this kind of work. We don’t have doctors like “McDreamy” or “McSteamy.” This isn’t “Grey’s Anatomy.” It’s real life with the medical team, volunteers and host country doctors all working together to treat avoidable blindness. Trust me, there’s nothing romantic about flying for 48 hours, and sometimes being without hot showers.

One of the most amusing patients I ever helped to treat with Orbis was an older gentleman in Jamaica. He hadn’t seen his wife in about 20 years because of advanced cataracts. His wife had been feeding and clothing him the whole time, and she helped him get around. It was an extraordinary relationship.

When it came time to take off his eye patch, the patient asked if his wife could wait outside. I thought something was wrong. He leaned toward me and asked, “Is my wife still pretty?” I started laughing to myself because no matter how old they are, men can be, well, men.

I assured him his wife was beautiful. She came back into the room, he smiled and gave her a hug and a kiss. And then he thanked me for reuniting them.

By Hunter Cherwek, as told to Joan Raymond. E-mail: joan.raymond@nytimes.com.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=36417d46bd9981ca96a894465e7fbee0

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