Flying Eye Hospital – Saving Sight Around the World

Flying Eye Hospital – Saving Sight Around the World

Angela Purcell, a nurse making a difference, has helped save patients’ sight and taught others how as part of the Flying Eye Hospital.

Purcell didn’t start her career expecting to help save people’s eyesight around the globe. In fact, she didn’t even start working as a nurse until an amazing experience changed her life permanently.

Purcell, now an RN with an Ophthalmic Nurse diploma and the Associate Director of Nursing for Orbis International’s Flying Eye Hospital, began her career as a legal secretary.

“When I was unexpectedly hospitalized, my life and career path changed forever. During that brief experience as a patient, I was inspired by the nurses around me. Good nursing depends on discipline, keen observation, and sound clinical skills. Those attributes attracted me to the profession,” recalls Purcell. “It was then I decided to start my training to become a nurse. I knew it was the right decision as I thought about the lives I could change by helping to improve the well-being of others.”

Purcell attended nursing school at Cambridge University Hospital in England, earning her RN degree in 1985. Her first job out of nursing school was working as part of intensive care teams at a cardiovascular heart and lung specialty hospital. “After a few years in this high-intensity specialty, I moved to specialize in eyes and earned my diploma in ophthalmic nursing,” she says.

During her ophthalmic studies, Purcell attended a conference where she heard an Orbis representative talk about their work. “I was captivated. I promised myself that I would join their Voluntary Faculty, a global force of more than 400 medical experts who share their skills with local eye care teams around the world,” says Purcell.

And beginning in 2012, she did just that. She began working as a volunteer faculty scrub nurse, and a few months later, she was offered a permanent position as Orbis’s Head Nurse with the Flying Eye Hospital Team.


Angela Purcell is the Associate Director of Nursing for Orbis International’s Flying Eye Hospital. Photo credit: Geoff Oliver Bugbee/Orbis International

Eyes in the Skies

According to Purcell, the Flying Eye Hospital is a fully accredited ophthalmic teaching hospital on board a plane. It travels to locations that don’t have access to quality eye care, and the staff trains eye care teams–ophthalmologists, nurses, anesthesiologists, and biomedical engineers–on how to deliver the same care in their community.

“Training is at the heart of everything Orbis does and everything I do in my daily role. I provide in-person, hands-on training to local nurse teams in infection control and emergency preparedness during training programs. I work with them on the plane and in the partner hospital,” explains Purcell. “During training programs, we care for children and adults with a wide variety of eye diseases, including cataracts, glaucoma, strabismus, and other conditions that can cause vision loss or blindness.”

Globally, she says, 1.1 billion people live with vision loss–90% of which is avoidable.

“The work I do is fighting to decrease this statistic,” says Purcell.

During the pandemic, when she couldn’t teach people in person, Purcell began teaching on Cybersight, the Orbis telemedicine and e-learning platform. Even when in-person programming returned, Purcell continued to teach online. “I found that virtual training is a great way to reach everyone,” she says. “It’s a fabulous complementary tool to every nurse’s training.”

Another crucial part of Purcell’s job is that she plays an important role in ensuring that the standards to obtain accreditation for the Flying Eye Hospital from the American Association of Accreditation for Ambulatory Surgery, are met and adhered to.

“In my role, I also ensure [that] Orbis employees are benefiting and growing, which, in turn, benefits my occupational development,” says Purcell.

Miracles Happen

One of Purcell’s greatest rewards in her job is hearing some of the patients’ stories. She shared this one:

“One of my favorite stories in my nursing career happened in April 2018 when I went to Trujillo, Peru, with the Flying Eye Hospital for a three-week training program. I worked with a volunteer nurse to care for patients before and after their surgeries. While she was preparing a patient for surgery–a young man of about 25 years old–I spoke to his mother. To my surprise, this was the second time her son had been a patient at the Flying Eye Hospital.

Twenty years ago, her son had surgery on his eye on the plane as a small child. She said she was so grateful and surprised the plane was back in Peru when her son needed urgent surgery. He had just had an accident and injured the same eye that had been operated on as a child. His mother proudly showed me pictures from the day of her son’s first surgery on the plane.

“As I looked at the pictures of the little boy and the nurse caring for him, I realized this was the same nurse preparing him for surgery again, so many years later. The nurse remembered him as a child, and the nurse, the patient, and the mother had a sweet, sentimental reunion. For me, as a witness to this fascinating story, I will always remember how it made me realize that miracles do happen in our ‘hospital with wings.’”

Purcell says she’s realized how well her job fits her skill sets. “I am great at networking and communicating with people from different cultures. Working with a global organization allowed me to collaborate, innovate, meet targets, help others, and challenge myself. Some of the highlights of my current role working at the Flying Eye Hospital have enabled me to meet quite famous individuals, including Cindy Crawford, HRH Duchess of Wessex, many heads of state, and the list goes on,” she says.

But there are many other reasons why she loves the work she does. “I love my Flying Eye Hospital team. We are like a family. We are a small, multi-cultural, close-knit team that supports one another and encourages progression and collaboration. We all share the same vision and are dedicated to fighting avoidable vision loss together,” says Purcell. “I am inspired by the people around me and how rewarding it is to see the results of our work.”