It is a baking hot morning in late July. On the cracked concrete freight runway of Ulaanbaatar airport, Mongolia, weeds force their way up. Near the cargo hangar is a white DC-10 plane, with a swoosh of baby blue on its tail, and the logo of eye charity Orbis – the initial O is designed to look like an eye.
This is what is called the Flying Eye Hospital: it is staffed almost entirely by volunteers from around the world who give up time to bring their skills to poorer parts of the world in order to stem the rise of preventable blindness.
Standing at the top of the stairs to the plane is veteran volunteer scrub nurse Ann-Marie Ablett; that is, the nurse who acts as the surgeon’s right hand during operations and procedures.
Originally from County Roscommon, Ireland, with a gentle and lilting brogue, Ablett is softly-spoken and, as she looks up from beneath her brown fringe, it is hard to believe that she is 61. Her “day job”, as she puts it, is as clinical lead nurse in ophthalmology at the University of Wales in Cardiff.
She adds that this will be her 28th voluntary assignment with Orbis in just 12 years. It’s an astonishing odyssey in which she has spanned 13 countries across three continents, seen more than 1000 patients and trained thousands of nurses and healthcare professionals.
For her, it is the most joyous thing in her life: “When I go on a programme it puts a smile on my face which lasts until I go on the next one,” she says, laughing.
A boy of ten is walking confidently towards the plane, hand in hand with his mother. He has Mongolian good looks, with a mop of black hair; it is only as he gets closer that it becomes clear his left eye is almost wholly shut. For young Bold-Erdene Ganbold, this is a lucky break; the day before, he had been selected for surgery by the Orbis team at a screening day at a hospital in the sprawling city. Without the specialist surgery they can provide, he would suffer continued degradation of his sight and run the risk of blindness in one eye from the condition called ptosis, a drooping of the eyelid.
To make matters worse, Bold-Erdene has an abscess in the same eye, caused by a playground fight some months before; the incident has caused post-trauma scarring tissue, further endangering his sight.
Ablett had met the ten-year-old at the screening, where enthusiastic Mongolian staff had marshalled as many cases as possible for the Orbis team to consider. The corridors were packed with families who had brought their children and other family members – some from hundreds of kilometres away – in the hope that they would be selected for operation at the Flying Eye Hospital. Inevitably, there would be heartbreak, but Orbis has two main criteria for selection. First, the case must afford good potential for teaching surgical techniques to local medical staff. Legacy is at the heart of the Orbis ethos. The second is that the surgeon must be reasonably confident of achieving a positive outcome – false hope serves no-one.