What is your first thought when someone mentions the beauty brand L’Occitane? Shea butter hand cream and almond shower oil, perhaps? For me, charity immediately comes to mind, because L’Occitane give so generously to a number of brilliant projects around the world. But they don’t ever shout about it or ask for praise. Giving back is simply part of their brand DNA.
And it’s through L’Occitane that I first learnt about the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital. A one-of-a-kind plane kitted out with an operating room that travels the world to fight avoidable blindness. (L’Occitane help fund the aircraft, and 100% of the profits from their Shea Milk Solidarity Soap go directly to Orbis).
I was so fascinated by the Flying Eye Hospital that I spoke to Joanne ‘Jing’ Crosby, an ophthalmologist who has worked onboard the plane for many years. The story of her 9 to 5 is sure to inspire, so let’s dig straight in…
What first attracted you to ophthalmology when you were studying medicine? And what was your path into the profession like?
I actually came to ophthalmology by accident. It wasn’t my first choice. I had also applied to study OBGYN and dermatology, but in the end I didn’t like their training programmes, and ophthalmology had a really good programme. I’m from the Philippines, and the training institution I attended only accepted one trainee per year. So I got to work on all of of the cases, which meant I learnt quickly.
After the four years of ophthalmology training I moved into LASIK eye surgery, and did another year-and-a-half of training. That experience was so interesting because I worked in one of the most expensive eye centres in the Philippines. Before that I’d been practising in a government hospital, where I’d been treating really poor patients who couldn’t afford essential surgery. And with LASIK it was all wealthy patients – including politicians and celebrities – who would pay about £2,000 per eye.
LASIK was fun at first, but after a while I realised it wasn’t really the life I wanted. I’d go into other hospitals and see patients from all walks of life. There were so many people who really needed surgery but didn’t have the means to pay for it.
How did you get involved in the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital?
Again, it all happened by accident. I didn’t feel emotionally fulfilled by my work in LASIK, and one day I Googled ophthalmology jobs and Orbis came up. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “What? A plane converted into a hospital? Is this true?” It said to submit a CV, so I did.
I was a bit broken hearted at the time and wanted to get out of the country and do something different. I’m very religious, and I had been questioning what to do next. So when Orbis offered me a job as a staff doctor it felt like an answered prayer. I joined the team in 2010, and it really felt like that was where I was meant to be.
Could you explain a little about how the Flying Eye Hospital works and what your role entails?
As far as I know, some charity missions will just provide surgery by foreign doctors and then leave. But what’s so great about Orbis is we give free surgeries, but also train the local doctors, nurses and bio-med engineers so they’re able to sustain a high level of care after we leave.
I’ve visited a lot of developing countries where the hospitals have amazing equipment that has been donated by charities. But when you ask them why they’re not using it they’ll always say something like, “Oh, it broke and we’re not sure how to fix it.” It’s useless to have the best technology if you don’t know how to maintain it. So training is a big part of our work at Orbis.
As a Programme Manager for Orbis I focus on the logistics of putting a new programme together, and visit each country at least six months before the plane arrives. It’s mostly the volunteer doctors that perform the surgeries, and we’ve been lucky enough to work with the best eye surgeons in the world. Initially I was really starstruck by the volunteer doctors, because they’re the biggest names in the eye care profession. But they’re always such humble, nice people.
How do you like to unwind after a long day at work?
It’s different in every country. Personally, I always want to rest because the days are so long. But we usually socialise with the local doctors in the evenings. Most host countries, especially those in Asia, are really hospitable. They invite us to a dinner every night.
And Orbis also do a lot of goodwill tours in the US and UK, because we need donations to fund the programme. So whenever we’re in America I spend my weekends exploring and visiting relatives who live in the States.
What is the biggest challenge you currently face in your work?
Eventually you get used to it, but the most difficult thing at first was the fact you always need a plan A, B, C and D. You can’t be too rigid as an Orbis Programme Manager, or else you’d always be in a bad mood. Things can go wrong at a moments notice, so you have to be able to act fast and come up with another plan. Once Daniel Craig was coming to visit the hospital with a group of press to draw attention to the work we do, and the plane broke down. It was the worst timing. But we had to put plan B into action, and luckily it all worked out well in the end.
And, on the flip side of that, what is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
When I was living in the Philippines travel was just a dream to me. But through my work with Orbis I’ve realised the world is not as big and unreachable as we imagine. For me, the most rewarding thing is knowing that I have friends in every part of the world – even in Syria, where we worked before the war began. When I first started out in my career I often felt inferior, and like I wasn’t good enough. But I’ve since realised we’re all human, and ultimately we’re all the same.
Which other women working in the industry inspire you?
In general our volunteer doctors, nurses and bio-med engineers inspire me – both the men and women. So many of them have been really supportive of Orbis. They’re the best in their field and obviously very busy, but they’re still happy to donate their time, skills and knowledge. Many of them are also very wealthy, and donate money too. And, on top of that, they’re never picky about which countries they’ll visit. They want to go wherever they’re needed.
And, finally, what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learnt through your work with the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital?
I always tell myself, ‘You know what Jing, if you love what you’re doing you will never work a day in your life’. And that’s how it felt from day one with Orbis. During the first few weeks I cried a lot. It was a big culture shock. But those small hardships never really stood out. What always stood out to me was the experience of travelling and meeting new people. And one of the greatest lessons I think you can ever learn is to use whatever skills you have to touch other people’s lives. At the end of the day it’s not always about money. Yes, money will help you live comfortably, but you can’t take it to where you’re going in the end.