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GREY Journal recently sat down with ophthalmologist, Dr. Maria Montero, who works and trains other doctors on Orbis, the flying eye hospital, to ask her what it’s like being a woman in medicine and how it feels making history as a doctor practicing medicine on this larger-than-life aircraft. It may look like an ordinary commercial airplane on the outside, but Orbis is nothing short of extraordinary. Orbis is a flying, teaching eye hospital staffed with doctors who treat avoidable blindness in many countries around the world and train medical personnel in sight-saving eye surgeries. In another life, this incredible aircraft functioned as a cargo plane; however, since 1982, the aerodyne “has been an example of the marriage between medicine and aviation…” according to orbis.org.

GREY Journal: How do you balance your career and motherhood? How do you establish and maintain boundaries in your personal and professional life?

Dr. Maria Montero: “Balancing career and motherhood can be tricky – ask any mother out there regardless of her profession! In my situation, working with Orbis on the Flying Eye Hospital was especially unique in that, previously, no woman had chosen to continue traveling full time with the Flying Eye Hospital after having a baby, so I was making history within the organization! I was planning to bring my daughter with me while traveling to lead training programs for eye care professionals around the world. Then COVID hit, and all of our training went virtual, so that provided a higher level of flexibility. Now, I find that my career and motherhood often intersect in unexpected and sometimes humorous ways.

For example, early in the pandemic, I was teaching a virtual Flying Eye Hospital course and noticed that I could use my daughter’s art supplies to further illustrate the surgical techniques I was teaching, and I’ve been doing that ever since! My daughter is my number one priority, and precisely because of that I know that I have to set a good example for her by showing her that if you set your mind to it you can have it all.”

GJ: When did you know you wanted a career in ophthalmology? What positive impact do you want to see in the world through your work?
Dr. Maria Montero giving lecture aboard Orbis flying eye hospital
Dr. Maria Montero giving lecture aboard Orbis Flying Eye Hospital

MM: “I always liked ophthalmology because you have to be very precise, especially when it comes to surgeries. Whether it is restoring sight for adults, or performing sight-saving surgeries on children and being able to tell their parents they will be able to see—it’s an incredible privilege to be able to impact somebody’s life in that way.”

GJ: I noticed your subspecialty is on the anterior segment of the eye. And your focus is on treating glaucoma and cataracts. Tell our audience more about that. We’d love to understand the intricacies!

MM: “Cataract surgery is when you replace the natural lens of the eye because it has become cloudy, the surgery is performed through a 2 mm incision and you breakdown the lens, vacuum it and then replace it with an intraocular artificial lens. I love this procedure specially because it takes less than 15 minutes to completely change the life of a person.”

GJ: How many countries have you been to so far? Is there a particular country/region that stands out in your mind where the need for eye surgeries is the greatest?

MM: “With Orbis I have been to Bangladesh, Vietnam, Qatar, Mongolia, Ethiopia, Cameroon, China, Arab Emirates, Ireland, UK, Peru, USA, Spain. Most countries we go to train eye care teams, and other countries we travel for fundraising and awareness. We will even do trainings ourselves in some cases. Every country has different needs in eye care, some need more training in cataract surgery, some need training in clinical care and some need to build their skills in training their residents. Of people with vision loss, 90% live in low-and middle-income countries.”

GJ: Tell us about what it’s like to be a part of the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital team. What is your favorite part about flying with this amazing technology at your fingertips?
Orbis Flying Eye Hospital
Orbis Flying Eye Hospital

MM: “It’s incredible. The Flying Eye Hospital is a state-of-the-art teaching hospital – complete with an operating room, recovery room, and classroom – all on a plane. We’re able to go to different parts of the world and save the sight of countless individuals, but the most exciting thing is that we also are able to teach. By teaching, we are helping eye care teams around the world build the skills they need to save sight in their communities for generations to come.

Since we have gone virtual during the pandemic, Orbis has leveraged cutting-edge technology in our programming – tools like simulation training, AI, and of course, telemedicine are all used regularly. This has all been possible because Orbis began investing in remote learning many years ago, and I’m so proud of the work my colleagues and I have been able to continue during the pandemic.”   

GJ: Could you define the phrase “avoidable blindness” from a medical standpoint for our audience?

MM: “Avoidable blindness is a term that describes many of the eye conditions we teach local eye care teams how to treat in the low-and middle-income countries where we work. It’s blindness caused by a preventable or treatable condition, such as cataracts or trachoma, which we rarely see here in the U.S. A simple fix, like antibiotics or a surgery, can often make the difference between sight and blindness.”

GJ: Could you explain why avoidable blindness affects more women and girls than their male counterparts?

MM: “Fifty-five percent of people with vision loss are women and girls. That’s 112 million more women and girls than men and boys. There are many reasons for this. One is that the average life expectancy of women is longer than for men, and many eye conditions, such as cataract, presbyopia, glaucoma, and age-related macular degeneration, are associated with increasing age.

But perhaps most importantly, while many barriers prevent both women and men from accessing eye health services, these barriers are often more problematic for women. These barriers can include having less access to financial resources, leaving them unable to pay for care; having fewer options for traveling to get the care they need; or even being less likely to know about the possibility of treatment or where to receive it due to low literacy.” 

What are your thoughts on Dr. Maria Montero and the amazing work she’s doing with the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital? Let us know down in the comments.

This article originally published on GREY Journal.