Orbis International is committed to eradicating avoidable blindness around the world. Karishma Tulsidas meets the people behind the charity that has produced an inspiring documentary film, narrated by Omega ambassador Cindy Crawford.

Imagine a dc-10 aircraft stripped of its cramped seats, and instead fitted with a fully equipped surgical theatre wherein operations can be performed to restore the eyesight of needy people around the world. This was the vision for Orbis International’s Hospital in the Sky programme, when it was established in the 1970s by a group of ophthalmologists in the US. Their aim was to eradicate preventable blindness—80 per cent of visual impairment in the world can be cured—by creating sustainable programmes in developing countries around the world. 

Today, the Flying Eye Hospital has become an emblem for Orbis, a symbol of its commitment to travel to the most obscure of places to not just conduct one-off surgeries on a group of patients, but also to build up a sustainable system by training the local doctors to continue the mission. Since the 1980s, Orbis has been to some 92 countries around the world. In fact, Singapore was one of its beneficiaries when it first started. Paul Forrest, chief development officer of Orbis, reveals the charity conducted medical programmes in Singapore in the beginning, and the nation has gone on to pay it forward. 

“We worked very closely with [pioneering eye surgeon] Dr Arthur Lim,” he says. “We have watched Singapore grow and develop, and now it’s the complete opposite. Your doctors volunteer to join our programmes in Asia and around the world. And we also take doctors from developing countries around the world to train in Singapore. We do the long-term training at the Singapore National Eye Centre.” For that reason, and also because it’s a springboard for neighbouring countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines, Singapore was chosen as one of Orbis’ Southeast Asian bases.

The long-term success of Orbis can be witnessed in the lives of the people the organisation has helped: with restored eyesight, they can have access to proper education, eventually enter the workforce, create a life for themselves and in turn play their small part in the country’s economy. 

Says Forrest, “There was once a little boy from Cuba who had surgery on board the Flying Eye Hospital. When he came the next day with his mother to remove his bandages, they both started crying. The doctor, nervous, asked the translator to ask them what happened. What had happened was that when the bandages came off, the boy looked at his mother and told her ‘You’re beautiful’. That captures the essence of Orbis. We restore sight so people can see beauty in the world.”

It is this humanitarian cause that attracted corporate sponsor Omega. Their partnership started in 2011, and their first project was a documentary featuring Daniel Craig. The Omega brand ambassador travelled to Mongolia to gain an insight into the workings of an Orbis mission, and learnt how a simple eye surgery—readily available in the first world—can forever alter the life of a person. 

Cindy Crawford, another long-term ambassador for Omega, was invited to voice over a second documentary for Orbis. This time, the Flying Eye Hospital was the focus of the movie. She and her daughter Kaia Gerber (the 13 year old recently made her modelling debut in Vogue), travelled to Peru to witness a team of highly skilled ophthalmologists perform surgery on children with preventable visual impairment, and the elderly with cataracts. Due to limited resources and time, the team held a selection process to choose the candidates for surgery. But the rest of the candidates have a fair shot in the future: within the flying hospital is a classroom where a big screen instantly captures the surgery occurring real-time in the theatre, so training doctors can learn from the best surgeons. There is no fancy equipment: the doctors use the tools that are available in the country, so the locals can continue the good work. 

On her involvement, Crawford says, “All Omega did was mention Peru and I said I was in. When they told me about Orbis and all that they’re doing, it just made it sound more interesting. I thought I would take that opportunity to go to Machu Picchu, and I thought that would be the highlight, but the highlight turned out to be the Orbis part of my trip. I was so inspired by them.” 

Omega has launched two timepieces from the Constellation (pictured above) and De Ville lines with blue dials, with the proceeds going to Orbis. The metallic blue hue has come to be universally recognised as a symbol of hope. Raynald Aeschlimann, vice-president and international sales director for Omega, says, “The blue has become the Orbis colour for us. It’s very simple, but these watches have sold 10 times more than the others. Our designers say it’s because of the blue hue. I truly believe that it’s the concept behind the watches. People who want to buy an Orbis watch are touched by the story.”

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.