Volunteer Faculty Nurse from Vancouver Changes Lives Worldwide

It was 2011 when nurse Alice Lee toured the Flying Eye Hospital during the plane’s visit to Vancouver. She had heard the Orbis story and was impressed by the world’s only fully accredited surgical eye hospital on an aircraft.

Alice already had experience with global health, having volunteered with a non-profit that helps children around the world in need of cleft palate surgeries. Walking through the plane, she saw that Orbis might be a way to further give back to the community. Alice chatted with the nurses working on the Flying Eye Hospital and, learning about her global experience, the head nurse suggested she send in her resume. Alice did just that. In May 2012, she boarded the plane as a volunteer faculty member on her first program, this one to Lanzhou, China.

That trip was the first of six for Alice, who is hopeful that she will return to Orbis in-person training when COVID ends. She had been scheduled to return to Mongolia with the Flying Eye Hospital team in 2020, but the in-person elements of the program were canceled due to the pandemic. The need continues, though, and Alice plans to be there to support the work of Orbis when face-to-face programs are possible once more.

Alice (second from the right) provides training and support to local nurses in Jinan, China.

Alice has more than 35 years of nursing experience and is currently a clinical nurse leader at a hospital in British Columbia, where she manages the day-to-day work in the operating room. Now that her children are grown, she has the freedom to be away for Orbis programs and she loves the hands-on nature of teaching, either on the Flying Eye Hospital or through Orbis’s hospital-based training programs.

For Alice, each Orbis trip is special, and each is an opportunity to learn. When she visited Mongolia in 2018, she was awed by the environment around her. “I talked to one doctor and he said it’s very cold in the wintertime, so it’s very easy for kids to get pneumonia.” This detail was one that stuck with her as just another example of a barrier that could prevent a child from getting needed the eye treatment they may need.

Alice and a team of nurses reading a patient's notes.

Also on the Mongolia trip, she was able to work with nurses on techniques for scrubbing-in when working in an operating room. The nurses were very interested in the North American methods of gloving and preparing for surgeries. Alice found similar interest when she went on a Flying Eye Hospital program to Vietnam, where she left the nurses with a guide to North American Operating Room Standards that they had found very helpful. “After my teaching, I said if you have any problems, you can just refer to the guide to see what the standard is and why we are doing it that way.”

Alice can’t recall on which trip her most powerful image of the importance of Orbis’s work comes from, but she will never forget the moment itself. There was a child who had received eye treatment in his local village, but it had not gone well. His grandfather travelled for three days by bus with the boy to get to the Orbis program, but the damage was already too great. “When he arrived it was too late to have a second chance to do [the surgery],” Lee says. She felt terrible for this child and still thinks of him. “Hopefully by teaching the local doctors and nurses, that will never happen again.”

Alice always shares the Orbis mission and her volunteer work with other health care providers, explaining the importance of not just swooping in and doing the work, but of taking the time to share knowledge and empower people through education. She would love to see more Canadian nurses volunteer with the organization or offer support in whatever ways are possible so that the cycle of learning can continue.