Volunteers’ Week: Thoughts on 16 years as an Orbis volunteer

June 2020

Larry Benjamin has been an Orbis medical volunteer for 16 years, and a trustee on our board for 12 years. To celebrate Volunteers’ Week, we caught up with Larry to find out what originally attracted him to Orbis, and why after all these years, the work he does still makes him tick.

During Larry’s 16 years, he’s completed an incredible 16 volunteering trips with Orbis. He speaks fondly of his first ever trip with Orbis in 2004, which was to Myanmar: “I still see the faces of the children that we helped, the first few, because they were really different to what I was used to seeing in the UK. You just remember that sort of thing because the improvement is so dramaticI still remember two of the children, a boy and a girl, who had their cataracts done in Myanmar and who really did fabulously well. The following day they saw their mothers face for the first time. It’s something I will always remember, and it cemented my experience with the organisation and made me realise it was worthwhile.

However, as we speak about what attracted Larry to Orbis in the first place, it becomes clear that it’s the wider impact of Orbis’s training that appealed to him: “One of the very impressive things with Orbis is their philosophy of teaching local people how to do the surgery rather than just doing it themselves ... The principle really is to leave something behind that can grow.”

This is incredibly important in the countries we work, where the number of trained medical staff can be limited: “There aren’t enough volunteer faculty around the world to cure the problem [preventable blindness] and so it has to rely on the ripple effect of teaching other people ... It’s not just the doctors, it’s the nurses, the technicians and pilots. There is an awful lot of teaching that goes on all through the programme at all levels.”

In many of the countries Larry has visited, medical facilities have been poor. But this wasn’t the case during his most recent trip to Cameroon in late 2019: “The hospital had unusually good facilities and it was well funded and provided for in that way. It made life a lot easier from my point of view.” However, the programme still came with its challenges: “[There were] still some of the usual problems with access to education, lots of young patients not able to get to hospital, no transport, all of that sort of thing. So the infrastructure in the country was very typical [of the countries we work in].”

Another challenging aspect of Larry’s time in Cameroon was the training itself: “The basic training was still a requirement, so I was doing mainly paediatrics and cataracts in children. That’s hard enough when you have very good facilities. Children have different anatomy and different physiology to adults … So it is technically more demanding than with adult surgery. That is a feature of these programmes which does stand out because it is something that is important to get right. Making sure that things go well whatever the circumstances is always a bit of a challenge, but I enjoy it.”

But for Larry, the frequent challenges he faces and the time he gives up for Orbis is worth it: “You feel very proud of being part of the team. It’s such a big effort to get the aeroplane involved and to get the flying eye hospital to where it is going. There are so many people involved at so many different levels, you’re just really proud to be part of that team. To see it even being set up or packed away is a Herculean effort and you can’t help but feel proud of being part of that organisation.”

And finally, Larry was keen to stress the importance of still supporting Orbis, even as the pandemic continues globally: “I think a lot of the charitable activity around the world is different to how it was a few months ago. I think we are all finding it difficult. We are all prepared to go back into action as soon as we can, [and] some programmes are carrying on to a degree. We still need the funds, we still need the support, and we are incredibly grateful. We’ll work hard when we get there. Please remember us and keep us in your thoughts at this time.”

Music Credit: www.bensound.com.