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Restoring sight, far and wide

Dr. Woodford Van Meter's patients come to him for sight, and they find it in an airplane outfitted with an operating room.

For the past 23 years, Van Meter, a University of Kentucky professor of opthalmology, has been volunteering his services aboard Orbis International's Flying Eye Hospital.

The DC-10 jet travels to developing countries, restoring sight to the blind and visually impaired and providing continuing education to eye doctors and other medical workers.

Van Meter is the subject of a locally-produced documentary, Sight & Insight: Travels with Orbis, scheduled to air on KET1 at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

As a volunteer with the non-profit organization, Van Meter, 56, is among specialists who treat people with conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, corneal blindness and diabetic retinopathy.

Van Meter said Orbis does about a dozen three-week-long missions a year. He estimates that he's been on about 25 of the trips.

His most recent was to Syria in 2007, and he may go to Vietnam next year.

"We're very fortunate in the United States, and this is one way that you can give back," he said.

The corneal transplants Van Meter performs allow people to see children and grandchildren they've never seen before, to return to the workforce and to become self-sufficient once again.

The World Health Organization estimated in 2002 that 37 million people worldwide are blind, and another 124 million are visually impaired. About three-quarters of those cases are treatable or preventable, but in developing countries, that help is often unavailable.

When the Flying Eye Hospital visits such places, local doctors recommend treatment for patients who are then screened by the Orbis doctors.

Van Meter said they're looking for the patients who can benefit most from treatment and whose cases will be helpful in teaching local doctors. That means people who are blind in both eyes take priority over those with less serious forms of vision impairment, and more common procedures usually take priority over rarer ones.

While one surgeon is working in the plane's operating room, others may be lecturing to local eye doctors in the 48-seat classroom. Often, Van Meter said, surgeries are videotaped and shown live in the classroom, allowing the local doctors to ask questions of the surgeon, who wears a microphone, while the procedure is being done.

Sometimes, he said, the volunteer doctors are able to increase the number of surgeries they perform by using a local hospital's operating room.

"You really learn a lot about what these people are going through when you try to operate with their equipment," Van Meter said.

While Van Meter has traveled the world through his work with Orbis, he's never actually flown in the Flying Eye Hospital. The plane is always parked at the international destinations where the work is done when he arrives via commercial flights.

Van Meter got involved with Orbis, which has offices in a number of countries, in 1986, when a friend called and asked if he'd like to go to Baghdad. Iraq was at war with Iran.

"I called all my friends at the time and they said, 'No, don't go,'" he recalled.

Then he talked to an elderly aunt, who said, '"Woodford, if you're ever going to do something like that, you ought to do it now,'" he said.

So Van Meter went, although he'd been warned by his congressman that he'd probably be sleeping under animal skins in a tent in the Iraq desert.

Instead, Van Meter said he was picked up at the airport by a stretch limousine and taken to a hotel with marble floors and crystal chandeliers.

And he found the work to his liking.

"The passion and enthusiasm of the Orbis crew were contagious," he said.

Over the years he's also travelled with Orbis to Iraq, Cuba, Thailand, Sudan, Romania, Peru, Ecuador, Haiti and Trinidad.

Wood Simpson, who owns Lexington-based Post Time Video, travelled with Van Meter to Cuba and Syria and is the documentary's executive producer.

"He performs an amazing service," Simpson said. "To see these people who are elderly and having their eyes restored after years of blindness, to see their faces when they wake up in the hospital is an amazing experience."

Simpson said he hopes the documentary, which was directed by Guy Mendes and narrated by Ashley Judd, will be aired nationally or even internationally on health-related channels.

"It's an opportunity to ... educate people about the medical aspects of this work that they do," Simpson said. "It's also a good story."

Dr. Woodford Van Meter's patients come to him for sight, and they find it in an airplane outfitted with an operating room.

For the past 23 years, Van Meter, a University of Kentucky professor of opthalmology, has been volunteering his services aboard Orbis International's Flying Eye Hospital.

The DC-10 jet travels to developing countries, restoring sight to the blind and visually impaired and providing continuing education to eye doctors and other medical workers.

Van Meter is the subject of a locally-produced documentary, Sight & Insight: Travels with Orbis, scheduled to air on KET1 at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

As a volunteer with the non-profit organization, Van Meter, 56, is among specialists who treat people with conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma, corneal blindness and diabetic retinopathy.

Van Meter said Orbis does about a dozen three-week-long missions a year. He estimates that he's been on about 25 of the trips.

His most recent was to Syria in 2007, and he might go to Vietnam next year.

"We're very fortunate in the United States, and this is one way that you can give back," he said.

The corneal transplants Van Meter performs allow people to see children and grandchildren they've never seen before, to return to the workforce and to become self-sufficient once again.

The World Health Organization estimated in 2002 that 37 million people worldwide are blind, and another 124 million are visually impaired. About three-quarters of those cases are treatable or preventable, but in developing countries, that help is often unavailable.

When the Flying Eye Hospital visits such places, local doctors recommend treatment for patients who are then screened by the Orbis doctors.

Van Meter said they're looking for the patients who can benefit most from treatment and whose cases will be helpful in teaching local doctors. That means people who are blind in both eyes take priority over those with less serious forms of vision impairment, and more common procedures usually take priority over rarer ones.

While one surgeon is working in the plane's operating room, others may be lecturing to local eye doctors in the 48-seat classroom. Often, Van Meter said, surgeries are videotaped and shown live in the classroom, allowing the local doctors to ask questions of the surgeon, who wears a microphone, while the procedure is being done.

Sometimes, he said, the volunteer doctors are able to increase the number of surgeries they perform by using a local hospital's operating room.

"You really learn a lot about what these people are going through when you try to operate with their equipment," Van Meter said.

While Van Meter has traveled the world through his work with Orbis, he's never actually flown in the Flying Eye Hospital. The plane is always parked at the international destinations where the work is done when he arrives via commercial flights.

Van Meter got involved with Orbis, which has offices in a number of countries, in 1986, when a friend called and asked if he'd like to go to Baghdad. Iraq was at war with Iran.

"I called all my friends at the time and they said, 'No, don't go,'" he recalled.

Then he talked to an elderly aunt, who said, '"Woodford, if you're ever going to do something like that, you ought to do it now,'" he said.

So Van Meter went, although he'd been warned by his congressman that he'd probably be sleeping under animal skins in a tent in the Iraq desert.

Instead, Van Meter said he was picked up at the airport by a stretch limousine and taken to a hotel with marble floors and crystal chandeliers.

And he found the work to his liking.

"The passion and enthusiasm of the Orbis crew were contagious," he said.

Over the years he's also travelled with Orbis to Iraq, Cuba, Thailand, Sudan, Romania, Peru, Ecuador, Haiti and Trinidad.

Wood Simpson, who owns Lexington-based Post Time Video, travelled with Van Meter to Cuba and Syria and is the documentary's executive producer.

"He performs an amazing service," Simpson said. "To see these people who are elderly and having their eyes restored after years of blindness, to see their faces when they wake up in the hospital is an amazing experience."

Simpson said he hopes the documentary, which was directed by Guy Mendes and narrated by Ashley Judd, will be aired nationally or even internationally on health-related channels.

"It's an opportunity to ... educate people about the medical aspects of this work that they do," Simpson said. "It's also a good story."

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