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Reunited after 27 Years – on the Flying Eye Hospital

By Orbis International

Jose Raul was a healthy, happy five-year-old playing outside near his home in Lima, Peru when he fell victim to a chance accident. Someone nearby threw something into the air and a metal point hit little Jose in his left eye. He had, as his mother Justine, recalls, a three-millimeter laceration on his eye. Justine didn’t bring him to the doctor immediately, though, because Jose Raul was a strong boy and neither of them knew how bad the injury really was. But the next day, Jose Raul’s eye started emitting a watery liquid and his eye had become visibly inflamed. Justine brought him straight to the emergency room where doctors sewed up his eye with a few stitches, but also told them that Jose Raul had a traumatic cataract and would likely need a cornea and intra-ocular lense (IOL) transplant given how badly his cornea and lens had been damaged by the rogue metal object. If not, they said, he could lose vision in that eye.

This was Peru in the early 1990s, when there weren’t many, if not zero, opportunities to receive corneal and IOL transplants, and the family was informed they would need to find someone able to bring them the supplies from the United States. Justine cared for her son and did what she only thought could help: she prayed.

After five days of praying, speaking with local doctors, and looking for a solution, Justine’s prayers were answered. A friend working in the local medical community called her to tell her that the international non-profit, Orbis, and the world’s-only Flying Eye Hospital (at that time the aircraft was a DC-8 – much smaller than the current MD-10) was coming to Trujillo for the first time in 1991, miraculously, just one week after the accident. Jose Raul and his mom reported to the Instituto Nacional de Oftalmologia (INO), Orbis’s local partner hospital in Lima, and INO referred them to the Flying Eye Hospital project in Trujillo. The project aimed to train local eye care professionals in Peru, while restoring eyesight of patients like Jose Raul.

One of the staff members who was working on the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital during that Trujillo trip was a nurse named Sandy Burnett from the United States. She still remembers how her team helped complete a successful operation and corneal transplant on Jose Raul. The results of the surgery ended up making an impact on the next several years of his life, as his restored vision helped him excel throughout school, eventually being accepted into a Lima university to become an industrial engineer.

Little did everyone know that many years later, Jose and Sandy would be reunited in the most surprising, unexpected and quite simply magical of ways.

Two years ago, Jose Raul, now a 32-year old, qualified industrial engineer was mugged and robbed, his attackers also giving him a hard blow to the head. The blunt force trauma caused the ocular lens he’d had repaired many years ago to shift out of place and seriously threaten his vision once again. Jose Raul, still accompanied by his loving mother Justine, went straight back to the team at INO where they recommended eye drops and also surgery once again. Justine was worried; another eye surgery for her son made her nervous. She told friends that Orbis was the only team she’d trust with her son’s eyes, given her positive past experience. They waited but eventually Jose’s eyesight started to deteriorate. Justine prayed once again for Orbis to come.

And as if it was planned that way, they did.

Justine drove Jose Raul from Lima to Trujillo – an eight-hour drive – and together they waited in line for a screening. They were the last patients of the entire day to be seen, and Jose was chosen, once again, to have eye surgery from Orbis Volunteer Faculty doctors on the Flying Eye Hospital. The three-part surgery that he needed this time, which included both another cornea transplant and intra-ocular surgery, was complex. And there, to help Jose through the preoperative, surgery and post-operative process, was a familiar face: Perioperative nurse Sandy Burnett, who has been a long-term volunteer nurse with Orbis for many years.

Upon being selected for the Flying Eye Hospital surgery, Justine immediately recognised Sandy as the very nurse who had tended to Jose 27 years ago in Lima. Sandy has kept photos and journals of every community she visits with Orbis, but Justine, it turns out, brought some photos of her own.

As Sandy recalls, “His mother pulled out some old photos and we’re looking at them together, and I exclaimed ‘soy yo! That’s me!’ And his mother grabbed me in the biggest bear hug I’ve ever had. To have that continuity and connection was really so magical. The stars and planets, everything was aligned.”

“I’m glad we could visit Peru again and help in this way. This is the magic of Orbis and the work that we do, helping people to see again, and recover something important – eyesight and a real sense of dignity. Jose has grown into such a nice, big, strong, tall man and will be able to continue his life’s journey without the impediment that visual impairment would have imposed.”

After having exchanged many hugs and contact details, they three are planning on keeping in touch with the next encounter hopefully not involving meeting on the Flying Eye Hospital.

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