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.