"I participated in a miracle," says Kathy Spahn '76, recalling an unforgettable experience aboard a DC-10 jet eye surgery hospital where a young blind boy was being treated by an apprehensive medical staff.
The child's eye had been severely damaged; surgery had been his only hope for recovery. Kathy and the other spectators remained breathless while his final bandages were loosened. The surgeon cautiously questioned the child about his surroundings. To everyone's heartache the boy stayed quiet, until the doctor off-handedly remarked that he thought himself a handsome man. The child giggled and looked up at the surgeon, shaking his head as if to say, "I'm not so sure about that, Doc." The boy's laughter left no doubt. He could see.
A memorable moment? Yes. Uncommon? Not so much. For nearly two decades, an organization known as ORBIS has operated the world's first and only flying eye hospital and teaching center. At its helm is Kathy, whose Oberlin-nurtured humanitarian spirit has reached all corners of the globe. Her work in the arts community and among people with AIDS included five years as executive director of God's Love We Deliver, a New York-based agency battling malnutrition and hunger among those with HIV/AIDS.
Two years ago Kathy was named president and executive director of ORBIS, a $30-million organization determined to improve the quality and access of eye-care systems in developing countries, particularly among children. ORBIS reports that 80 percent of people who are blind need not be; impairments could be prevented or cured with routine techniques. The developing world is home to 90 percent of the blind, people without access to medical attention and who are unaware that treatment exists.
Since its first mission, the flying hospital has presented more than 460 programs in 80 countries, training 54,000 doctors and treating 23,000 patients in Cuba, Syria, Mongolia, Bulgaria, the Philippines, Myanmar, the Dominican Republic, Germany, and more.
"The volunteer doctors always impress me," says Kathy from her New York office. "They fly coach and take a week's vacation away from their practices. They spend 20 to 25 hours travelling to developing countries where they may not know the language. The compassion and heart they have are just amazing."
Instructional sessions aboard the DC-10 hospital are impressive and intense; a 25-member team of surgeons, nurses, biomedical engineers, anesthesiologists, pilots, and mechanics staff each three-week program.
Potential patients are screened to determine which medical conditions offer the best opportunities for demonstrating surgical techniques. Patients are prepped and taken to the plane's laser surgery or operating room, and 52 local doctors watch the procedure from a classroom aboard the aircraft. An interactive video system lets them watch, hear, and question ORBIS surgeons as they operate. Hundreds of more surgeons join in via "wet labs"--classrooms set up inside the airport, in which they practice new skills on artificial eyes. Upon completion of the program, ORBIS leaves the doctors training videos in their native languages.
The adage "...teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime" has become ORBIS' unofficial creed, says Kathy, whether in the boardroom or the operating room. And how has the job affected her personally? "Every time I come back to the U.S., I kiss the ground. I've never been more appreciative of what I have."