Members can sign in here.

About the Author

Tiziana Cauli
Journalist (London, UK)

I am a London-based Italian journalist currently covering the property market in Europe, but with a strong background and interest in development issues. I graduated in a post-degree school of journalism in Milan (Italy) and hold a Ph.D. in African Studies. I worked as a journalist in South Africa, Italy, France and Spain and am fluent in Italian, English, Spanish and French.


Flying hospitals and clinics on wheels

Published 07th June 2010 - 16 comments - 4697 views -

Flying back to Spain from my home town in Sardinia is never a relaxing experience. The journey takes just over an hour but there is no way one can sit back and just chill, not even for ten minutes. This is what I get for flying with the world’s most famous low cost company, whose commercial strategy seems to include keeping passengers awake with announcements and jingles as the crew tries to sell them a different item every five minutes.

I know the entire list of products by heart now and sometimes I can even sleep through it. Last week, though, something did get my attention while I was silently cursing the hostess as she advertised smokeless cigarettes, perfumes produced by some famous singer, phone cards and lottery tickets.

A percentage of the money the company made from selling stuff on the plane would go to a very special medical charity called the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital. Once I got home I did some research and found out this flying hospital was just what it sounded like: an aircraft bringing eye care and medical training to places in the developing world where such services need quality improvement and are too expensive or difficult to reach for most people.

I browsed the success stories the organization published on their website and my attention focused on one of them in particular. It was about Victoria, a Ugandan 14-year old girl whose life changed completely after she got a cornea transplant a couple of years ago.

Before that happened she didn’t have a social life, could not read or recognize faces and was even asked to leave school as attending classes and studying was too difficult for her. Now she was a completely different person, she had made many friends and she wanted to study to become an ophthalmologist.

The thought of how rewarding it must have been for the “flying doctors” who assisted Victoria to give her a new life brought back memories of another travelling hospital I visited while working in South Africa.

This one was a train called Phelophepa – meaning “good, clean health" –  which brought affordable healthcare services to rural and poor communities across the country.

The train had an eye care wagon and I remember interviewing a young optometrist called Thabo Nabe who had served on it for a couple of years, making spectacles for patients who would cue outside. For most of them, those would be their first pair of glasses, as even a sight check-up (letting alone purchasing spectacles from a private optometrist) would have been too expensive or difficult before Phelophepa came to their communities.

Life on a train – especially on this one, where water supplies are limited and routes only touch rural or extremely poor areas – is not comfortable, but Nabe and other Phelophepa staff I talked to would have stayed on board for much longer if they were allowed.

Medical students in particular were enthusiastic about their 2-week volunteer shifts on the train. I remember one of them telling me how great she felt every time a patient could see properly again after getting treatment or new glasses.

The train also had a dental and a psychology wagon and it provided different services in a number of healthcare and prevention fields.

Back then, keeping Phelophepa running was already extremely challenging. The project was supported by South Africa’s public transport company Transnet as well as the government and a number of private donors, but, as the train’s manager Lillian Cingo said , it was “not even touching the tip of the iceberg.”

It’s easy to understand how a single train like Phelophepa cannot bring basic healthcare to all the people who are in desperate need of it in a country like South Africa and funds are obviously not sufficient to start other such trains in the Southern African region.

Phelophepa certainly requires less funds than a plane like the Flying Eye Hospital, which has offices in as many as seven countries in three continents and counts on a number of strong international corporate partners, including several airlines which even make it possible for their clients to donate frequent flyers miles.

The kind of treatment this structure provides, though, would probably require far more than what it is able to raise.

I am not a transport expert but I guess aircrafts and trains are not cheap to run. The amount of funds which is needed to keep them working probably makes the Flying Eye Hospital and Phelophepa not immediately cost-efficient, considering the number of patients they are able to reach.

The concept of travelling doctors reaching patients in needy areas far from hospitals and clinics, though, would probably deserve more attention from donors, who tend to focus on medical relief in emergency and conflict areas or major epidemics exclusively.


  • Giedre Steikunaite on 07th June 2010:

    Great post, Tiziana! I have two questions for you. First, you mention that these traveling hospitals offer affordable medical care. Does that mean that poor people still have to pay for their glasses? And second, is it really that greedy, greedy Ryanair (I suppose this is what you’re talking about) donates some of its profits to a medical charity? Given how they treat their paying customers, I would never expect it from them.

    Again, great post!

  • Tiziana Cauli on 07th June 2010:

    Hi Giedre,
    thanks for your comment and questions. Yes, patients pay a symbolic amount for services. When I visited Phelophepa, patients would pay the equivalent of $1.5 for a complete sight check-up. I was surprised too but the train’s manager told me they did it to preserve people’s dignity so that they wouldn’t feel like they were begging for assistance.

    On your second question: yes, it was Ryanair. I was surprised too, and apparently they also support a charity for children with neurological diseases in Ireland. If you think about it, though, this may be just another good strategy to sell stuff. I don’t even think they do it for their corporate image. After all they did get my attention when they mentioned this during the flight. I didn’t buy their bloody scratch-card but I’m sure many people do.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 07th June 2010:

    Tiziana, the point on dignity makes sense. As for Ryanair, I agree with you they probably don’t do it to boost their image. Everyone I know who flies with Ryanair hates them, but they still do it because of the prices.

  • Johan Knols on 08th June 2010:

    Well written Tiziana.

    Initiatives like this are great and if it means that we (the passengers) receive less service because of it, though luck. More companies should think like this.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 08th June 2010:

    @Giedre: yes, prices and the fact that they fly directly to my home town (not exactly a major hub) every single day from here, which is very convenient…

    @Johan: I’d happily give up the few services still left on their flights if money went to charity. I’m sure it’s a very tiny amount, but still, better than nothing and remarkable for a low cost company, no matter why they do it. Some major airlines have been doing this for years now, but they get more than enough to cover that cost with the fares they impose on us passengers.

  • Hanna Clarys on 08th June 2010:

    I don’t hate Ryanair, although I agree it’s very irritating to hear a constant stream of advertisements when you are trying to enjoy the nice colours of the clouds from your window smile

    But supporting initiatives like that plane-clinic deserves some credit. It’s much easier not to donate money.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 09th June 2010:

    Hi Hanna,
    yes, I guess they do deserve some credit for that. Although flying with them is becoming a joke, seriously. If I can make a little digression from the central topic of this platform, last time I flew Ryanair I had to empty a plastic bag I was carrying and give it to the woman sitting next to me so she could throw up, cause the company does not provide sachets! Also, whenever they need to push their goods cart along the aisle they announce turbulences and force you to remain seated, so you pay attention and possibly buy. Crazy.

  • Andrea Arzaba on 09th June 2010:

    Good to know about this flying doctors Tiziana! I wonder if any other low-cost airline does anything similar

  • Clare Herbert on 12th June 2010:

    Oh Ryanair! I think they do collect donations for charities, although it’s certainly not a big part of their work. They fly people around cheaply and with a scowl on their faces.

  • Tiziana Cauli on 14th June 2010:

    True Clare, donations are only a small part of what they get from selling scratchies. This morning I flew with them again and I loved the way they presented it. Translated from Italian, it sounded more or less like this: “if you wanna win a car and also give some money from charity, buy our lottery tickets!” You win a car and children in need win money. Isn’t it great?

  • Clare Herbert on 15th June 2010:

    I was asked “Do you like children?” in a shop last week. I said that I did but declined to donate to the charity (on the grounds that I’d never heard of it!). And the snooty shop assistant shot back: “So, you like kids but you don’t want to help them?”


Post your comment

  • Remember my personal information

    Notify me of follow-up comments?

    --- Let's see if you are human ---

    What is the last word of this sentence? Add a questionmark to your answer. (9 character(s) required)