Most doctors operate in hospitals. Monte del Monte, professor of pediatric ophthalmology at the University, likes to operate in a DC-10 airplane.

Photo courtesy of Derek del Monte

During two weeks in February, Monte traveled on a medical mission trip to Trujillo, Peru with ORBIS International — a non-government organization that brings doctors from the United States to developing countries on a plane called the Flying Eye Hospital used to both perform surgeries and train local doctors.

The Flying Eye Hospital has been traveling since 1982, when United Airlines donated the wide-body airplane to ORBIS. The inside of the airplane was stripped of its seating and replaced with a fully equipped ophthalmological eye operating room, pre-operation and post-operation areas, teaching classroom and video studio which moderates the cameras on the plane used to photograph surgeries.

As the only aircraft of its kind in the world, the Flying Eye Hospital has traveled to 86 countries and provided eye care treatment to more than 6.8 million people.

Monte said he volunteers with the Flying Eye Hospital because the experience is a rewarding way to give back to society the knowledge he learned during his medical training and career.

“Eye care is a very good specialty for this kind of work because much of what we do is surgery,” Monte said, “and many times with a single operation we can cure a blinding eye problem or straighten crooked eyes or do something very important that will prevent blindness.”

During this trip, in addition to performing surgeries on local patients, Monte helped teach Peruvian doctors new skills and techniques.

Before the Flying Eye Hospital arrived, the local doctors pre-selected 28 patients with specific eye problems about which they wanted to learn more. Everyone then examined the patients together and picked nine who would be good for surgical teaching purposes.

Monte said the intent is to cure the patient’s eye problems, while demonstrating to local doctors “how to do a certain kind of an operation better or maybe a new operation that they have never done.”

Each of the four volunteering doctors on the mission — hailing from around the country — were assigned two Peruvian pediatric eye doctors.

“They would alternate scrubbing in with us on cases, and they were right there when we were doing examinations,” Monte said.

Monte performed two surgeries in the operating room in the back of the plane, which were videotaped and shown to a classroom full of 30 local doctors and residents in the front of the plane. He also performed five surgical operations in the local eye hospital, with local doctors and nurses present to observe how to perform new techniques.

During free time in the afternoons, Monte and the three doctors gave lectures pertaining to their specialties. While Monte taught about pediatric eye muscle problems, other specialists discussed glaucoma and retina diseases.

Monte’s son, Derek del Monte, also volunteered on the medical mission. A University undergraduate and Medical School alum, Derek volunteered on the mission as a resident physician. Besides helping with pre-op and post-op care, Monte taught the local doctors Western-style cataract surgery techniques using donated pigs’ eyes.

Derek said he loved working with his father and watching the joy it brought him to help others.

“In medicine, a lot of who you become is the role models you have,” Derek said. “I think he’s an excellent role model. He’s making me into the doctor I hope to be one day.”

The elder Monte also volunteered with the Flying Eye Hospital last spring when he traveled to Da Nang, Vietnam along with nine other doctors from Big Ten schools.

He said his work helps build a global prospective for the University and contributes to the global reach program which encourages medical students and faculty to do international work.

“It also provides for me an opportunity to learn how medical care is delivered in Peru, and before then Vietnam, and before that Spain and all over the world,” Monte said. “I can bring some of their ideas back and help with the teaching of our residents.”

He said it’s also important to participate in medical missions and help those who don’t have access to good medical care like people do in the United States.

“In these developing countries there’s nobody else that can do this (kind of work),” Monte said, “and if I didn’t go there, or somebody like me, these patients would never get these kind of blindness-preventing surgeries or the local doctors wouldn’t learn how to do (procedures) on future patients.”

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