Sometimes it is the only thing you can do.


Orbis DC-10 Flying Eye Hospital in 1994

The newly acquired ORBIS DC 10 widebody aircraft debuted in 1994. This refurbished plane replaced the original DC 8 and remained the world’s only flying eye hospital. I would be demonstrating surgery on the first day of the plane’s inaugural three-week overseas program. The case would be broadcast live to be observed by hundreds of local doctors.

The plane had a completely equipped operating room with general anesthesia capability, a recovery room, outpatient examining rooms, a 40-seat classroom, and fully equipped and staffed audiovisual service for on-plane and remote meeting room support. Today a peripheral auditorium in the main terminal, with up to 200 participants, would supplement the onboard classroom.

On this first day, my responsibility as a senior volunteer ophthalmic surgeon was to demonstrate a surgical procedure for treating advanced childhood glaucoma. Demonstrating surgery live, for a large audience, is what this flying eye hospital was all about. The flying part was to get to different countries. All medical work was done with the plane on the ground. While our efforts helped patients, our chief aim was to train as many doctors as possible so they would do a better job with their patients after our brief stay.

Shortly after beginning, I discovered that for disease-related or possibly inborn reasons it would be impossible to do the procedure described in the schedule. Instead, I shifted to a variation that would also lead to the intended result. Wearing a headset microphone, I explained my reasons to the audience. This alternate plan went well and after about forty-five minutes the procedure was completed and I felt satisfied that it had gone well.

With an interpreter, I spoke with the parents and after that headed toward the classroom. On the way, I saw the ORBIS president coming toward me with a worried look. When we met, he said, “Gene, we have a problem. The host doctor said they did not approve of your performance and they do not want you to do more surgery.”

Dumbfounded I asked, “Why?”

“You said you were going to do the surgery with one technique then you did another. By not delivering on your promise, you lost face.”

“Heck, yes” I said. “When the house is on fire and you can’t get out of the front door like you plan you go out the back. What do these guys expect?”

A similar device for eye training

“Yes,” he said. “They agreed you did the right thing, but you lose face when you say one thing and do another.”

The next day we had a new audience and I proceeded as we had been uninfluenced by the first group. At the end of the week, I was invited to a neighboring city, and had my face-saving lesson tested. The professor proudly demonstrated a vision training exercise with a young boy looking in an instrument which I knew would have a whirling polarized light. He invited me to observe the light. The boy moved aside, and I bent over to look. There was no whirling light. The bulb had burned out, the boy knew it, his mother knew it, and the professor too, I suspect. After looking down the unlighted tube I straightened, looked at my host, nodded and smiled. We all saved face and would survive for another day. I had learned my lesson.


By Savvy Senior

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2 thoughts on “A Lesson Learned

  1. Saving face is one of the most difficult cultural customs for me to come to terms with. I have seen it and experienced it only to, in my mind, have saving face get in the way of a solution that would benefit everyone concerned but yet it cannot be done because of the need to save face.

  2. Very interesting story, we all had situations like that sometimes and you gave us a good example of how to make it natural. The work that you did in the flying Clinic has my whole admiration, an humanitarian thing to do . You really are a very special person.

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