My Week in Vietnam

September 2017

by Dr. Armie Harper, Orbis Volunteer Surgeon

It was 8 o’clock Monday night in Austin, Texas, where I’ve lived and worked as a retina surgeon for 22 years. Somehow, at precisely the same moment, it was 8 o’clock Tuesday morning in Binh Dinh, Vietnam, 9,000 miles away. I was climbing the steps to the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital, which was parked on the tarmac in the Binh Dinh airport.

Other volunteer eye surgeons from England were climbing the steps with me. We were on our way into the plane’s operating room and classroom. Our goal: to teach Vietnamese doctors how to prevent and reverse blindness.

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We all prepared well for this trip. Before I flew to Vietnam, Vietnamese doctors uploaded 45 patient files for me, including retinal photographs and diagnostic tests, via a secure Internet telemedicine program called Cybersight, which Orbis pioneers.

Together, on Cybersight, we selected 25 patients that I would soon see in person with their doctors beside me. In Binh Dinh, we selected about half of those patients for laser surgery.

Because Cybersight made the patient selection process so efficient, I was able to spend more time training Vietnamese doctors onboard the Flying Eye Hospital. This ophthalmic hospital is built into the fuselage of a former cargo plane donated by FedEx. It has an operating room on board, as well as a classroom and recovery room. While the Volunteer Faculty performs surgery and teaches, a technician broadcasts the surgery—in 3D—around the world. Anyone with a smartphone and Internet can learn from the broadcasts.

4 Binh Dinh Orbis Bugbee 2

A child being diagnosed at Orbis screening day Binh Dinh Eye Hospital. If untreated, pediatric eye diseases can lead to permanent blindness.

Orbis Volunteer Faculty members train local doctors and nurses, anesthesiologists, technicians—the entire eye health team—in low-income countries. Those eye health teams continue to treat local patients, using their improved skills, for the rest of their careers.

It’s very exciting and meaningful to be a part of this great cause. While in Vietnam, I also visited Binh Dinh General Hospital to examine the eyes of premature babies. They often suffer from Retinopathy of Prematurity (ROP), a leading cause of blindness in low-income countries where more low-birth-weight babies are being saved, but few doctors know yet how to protect their vision. It’s a highly preventable cause of blindness.

I saw one premature infant who was blind in one eye and had a retinal detachment in the other eye. I’m working to spare more babies from this. When we teach local doctors what to do for the baby’s eyes after a premature birth, we protect 80 years of vision. By the end of the trip, our team of Volunteer Faculty had trained 103 eye professionals, screened or examined 224 patients (including 25 babies for ROP), and operated on 84 patients during the two-week program. Orbis is an incredible organization with a heroic mission, and I have been fortunate enough to contribute my skills and expertise to help Orbis make the world a better place. 

- Dr. Armie Harper