Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Welcome to Sightlines. I’m Dr. Hunter Cherwek, Vice President of Clinical Services for Orbis International.

In this series, we’re looking at how the fight against global blindness has been affected by COVID-19 pandemic; the innovations that are making it possible to safely deliver urgent sight-saving care in the midst of it all; and what that work might look like going forward as we prepare for the “new normal.”

As we’ve been talking with guests about that very big topic, I noticed another theme that kept coming up.

[clip] Maurice Geary: We very often talk about ourselves as a family.

[clip] Lucia Nadaf: We work as a team and we are a family.

[clip] Dr. Daniel Neely: The Orbis family.

[clip] Dr. Alemayehu Sisay: Orbis family.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: It’s true – we really are a family at Orbis. And that family includes our staff in the air and on the ground….

[clip] Maurice Geary: It really does feel like a family when we’re together, and even when we’re apart.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: …our volunteers…

[clip] Dr. Daniel Neely: We all are driven by the same thing and we all share the same values.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: …our partners…

[clip] Dr. Umang Mathur: We love to work with Orbis as a partner, so thank you for being there.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: …our generous donors…

[clip] Captain Cyndhi Berwyn: That’s an important, important factor because they’re making a difference in the world, they’re allowing us to operate.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: …the doctors, nurses, and the other workers we train…

[clip] Dr. Andrea Molinari: You know how much I love Orbis.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: …the children and adults we treat…

[clip] Bulgan Orgilsaikhan: The Flying Eye Hospital came to Mongolia and changed my life forever.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: And everyone who believes that nobody in the world – no baby, no child, no adult – should have to live a life of blindness simply because they were born in a place where they cannot access eye care.

Right now, there are hundreds of millions of people living that reality. They are blind or visually impaired – and they don’t have to be. The good news is, global blindness has decreased in recent years. The bad news is, despite all of the progress we’ve made, the problem is projected to get worse. Because of population growth, aging, and an increase in diabetes, experts say that global blindness is on track to triple by the year 2050 unless we act now.

It is an enormous problem, but it’s a solvable problem. Even now. And the local teams and partners we work with around the world are so committed to solving it in their own communities.

[clip] Tezera Desta: Our staff and partner staff are expected to travel for about more than 3-4 hours on foot to travel to the [remote] village, whenever it's required. We have a very dedicated staff, only our staff, but the partner staff and administrator of the political leaders of the local regions are very committed to our program.

[clip] Dr. Daniel Neely: When you go someplace and you see how busy these clinics are, whether it's in Siem Reap, Cambodia, and there are 100 patients being seen that day. And yet, you think, well, they're just going to go into survival mode and get through everyone and go home and come back and do it again. But you see people who are willing to do that kind of volume and then sit down at night and send in a consult or do a course on Cybersight; they're willing to do that on top of what they just did all day long. How can you not support someone who wants to help themselves? And when you see people do that, that gives a great sense of joy.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: That is why the entire Orbis family is so determined to forge ahead – safely, of course – despite the pandemic.

In this episode we’ll spend some time with two cherished members of the Orbis Family. They each perform very different roles, but they share a vision of a world free from avoidable blindness.

First, Nurse Sandy Burnett. Sandy has been with us for decades, initially as a staff nurse on the Flying Eye Hospital and then as a volunteer. Then, Captain Cheryl Pitzer. Cheryl is volunteer pilot of the Flying Eye Hospital. She, too, has been with us for many years and she made Orbis history as part of the plane’s first-ever all-woman flight crew. It’s my pleasure to welcome each of them to Sightlines. Starting with Sandy. Here’s our conversation.


Dr. Hunter Cherwek: One of my favorite people in the Orbis family is joining us, Nurse Sandy, as she likes to be called, is really the heartbeat of Orbis and all that we do. She's been on all three generations of the Flying Eye Hospital, so you're not only going to see the best of Orbis and what we do, but also hear about our history and some of the amazing stories about her journey with Orbis from the very beginning years.

Well, Sandy, thank you so much for being here. Where are you right now and tell us how you're doing during this COVID crisis?

Sandy Burnett: Well, I'm in, at home, Gainesville, Florida, and I work at UF (University of Florida) Health, which is also known as Shands Hospital, in the recovery and pre-op area. And well, we're all just moving forward, there was a big shut down about patient surgery in March, April, May, so I didn't have to work, that's fine I work part-time. But now, I'm back to working, I'm [picking] it up to two days a week, and fortunately all patients are pre-checked for COVID and then are asked for two-day isolation before coming in for surgery. So, I mean, we're all wearing masks and, if there was someone positive, we have a protective gear.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Yeah, and I mean I think you really, you have an amazing story of how you first heard about and came to Orbis. Maybe you can talk about how Orbis came into your life and how you became part of the Orbis family, the first go around as a staff.

Sandy Burnett: [It] was really fun. I was doing in my first year at working at Bascom Palmer, I've been in medical sales and I had moved to Spain to learn Spanish because I grew up there and didn't know that there was another kind of Spanish spoken in the world. So, I went to Spain and immersed myself and I was not going to do medical sales, so I thought I'll go to the Eye Hospital at the University of Miami. And there is where I met Jeffrey Holland, a former Medical Director on the Orbis DC-8, who was doing a fellowship in cornea and he talked about this airplane that flies around the world training people to do better eye surgeries and I thought, that's the ticket for me.

I was able to get on board with Orbis in 1990 and flew to Sudan with the aircraft out of Germany when the Berlin Wall was coming down. And that began my love affair and adventures with Orbis and a whole new family of friends around the world. Particularly, when I am working as a nurse and sharing the skills I have with fellow nurses around the world, my skills may not serve them as well, but it introduces them to a manner of communicating and teaching everyone and not waiting till surgery is done. At the beginning of getting ready in the pre-op area, you can talk a little bit about some of the adjustments that might have to be made for having an eye bandaged or how to use the eye drops and maybe have them do a hands-on training at that moment. “Wash your hands and, here, let’s put the eye drop in.” So, that has been that affair and then the opportunity to go to new places and then take time off before coming home and traveling around a bit has been a real nice mix of those skills and opportunity.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Yeah, I would say you're, if I was asked to describe you, I would say you're a global citizen with an incredible amount of energy, who has an incredible gift of communication, who just happens to be a nurse. How long did you stay on the Orbis plane as a staff member and then how did you get re-engaged as a volunteer faculty member? Maybe you can talk a little bit about that as well.

Sandy Burnett: Well, I finished in April of 1993, after two and a half years roughly, on the DC-8 and it was time. I had a splendid job to return to at Bascom Palmer Eye Institute in the ocular plastics department and somewhere along that time, I think, Orbis was developing a nursing education program that offered me the opportunity to go to Lima, Peru. And so, that was the opportunity to deliver lectures in Spanish and show that I had those skills to afford sending me elsewhere to do training programs. Guyana was another place that I went, and Suriname, and Guatemala, to do specifically nurse training programs and or help visiting ophthalmologists do eye cases. And with that, I think there was a development in the role of how to include volunteer nurses who have, on the aircraft at the same time, been staff or, otherwise, are exceptionally skilled to draw from a different, a wider pool of nurses and afford a quality of service that couldn't be beat.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Yeah, and I think for me the surgical team is always focused on the procedure, you have the gift and you're really focused on the patient, the family and that whole pathway. Do they understand where to go the next day, how to put in the drops, show me how to put in the drops, which one do you put in in the morning, which one do you put at night… So really, I always tell people that the outcome of a surgery is also dependent on the patient, not just the surgeon, and you're the one that really prepares the patient and the family. It takes a village to give a child their sight back and I think you were really kind of the village leader, you're the team leader on that.

Obviously, we've talked about your global citizenship, but you seem to have a very special connection with Latin America and the Caribbean?

Sandy Burnett: Well, I think one of the first highlights with the DC-8 was going to Cuba. Having grown up in Miami from the mid-60s and with all the Cubans that have moved there, it was so interesting to go to that country and to see for myself the beauty of Havana and the people, and observe the different system of ophthalmology there. They were using the Russian Fyodorov / Ford Motor Company assembly line, when one ophthalmologist blocks the eye and another ophthalmologist takes out the cataract and, then, the patient moves on a conveyor belt to the next ophthalmologist to have the cataract, or the IOL (Intra-Ocular Lens) placed, and then, a fourth one closes the eye. It was interesting to be back there, maybe 10 years later, and that system was no longer being used.

The other memorable experience was in Peru and it was just a couple years ago that I was there that a 32 year-old, a young man came on board to have a cornea transplant. He had been mugged and so his intra-ocular lens had been dislocated and his cornea needed to be replaced and his mother, who was with him, said in Spanish: This is his la segunda vez. I'm going, Really? When was the first? And she said 1991. And I'm like, Really? And she said, I have photos! And when she pulled out the photos, there I was, with long blonde hair. Dr. Frankie, who was from England, was the anesthesiologist, and there standing with a seven year old with a metal fox shield over his eye. And now here, fast forward 27 years, is the same youngster. Well, it was just so momentous. She gave me such a bear hug of thank you and appreciation and love, it was just the stars and the planets were all aligned at that moment and I played for him, well, I can't remember the song right now, but I got through it on my ukulele. [singing] Stars shining bright above you… “Dream A Little Dream!” That was it.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: That's awesome! Yes. So, you treated this young man at the age of seven and you did a very successful cataract and corneal procedure and was part of the team that helped him get his sight back at seven. And then, all these years later he, unfortunately, had an assault and the eye was injured again and just by happenstance, the Orbis plane was there to save the day and you're on board to not only help him, but help the mom because, I remember this patient, I was on the plane at that time, she was very worried about her son. And maybe you could say, what did that young boy at seven, what did he go on to do with his vision and what did you find out about his life in the years after the DC-8 took off?

Sandy Burnett: Yeah, well, other than having successfully kept his donated cornea and going on to college and graduated with a degree in civil engineering. I extended an invitation to come to Florida. I'm not far from Disney World. And that's yet to happen, but you never know these days and so it was just a wonderful experience to have that kind of connection from 27 years prior.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Well, I could think of no better person to be your cultural attache for Disney World than you. Taking someone to the world's happiest place with the world's happiest person. I think that would be pretty spectacular.

Well, obviously, you've been part of the Orbis family for decades now. Where is the magic? What makes Orbis so special and what makes it so special to you?

Sandy Burnett: Well I think it's just the opportunity to mix myself with like-minded people to teach and benefit folks who have improved vision as well as the people from around the world who can do better nursing and/or anesthesia or be a kinder physician or be a nurse who knows how to suggest to a doctor, Let's not do it this way, let's try it this way. And, you know, there's a way to do that. And so, that's the opportunity to do that and share skills I have. It's a great pleasure and I've enjoyed doing it and look forward to returning when we can.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: And why is blindness, how has that impacted you, like you've seen blindness now all over the world and every corner of the world. Why is that such a special disease, a special thing to give, to treat and give someone the gift of sight?

Sandy Burnett: Well I think it’s back to not so much that we're trying to give someone 20/20 vision. It's the ability to function and regain some control over their lives that, without the vision, they're not a useful participant in the village. They can't watch the cattle, they can't go out to the well to get water, they may not marry - and helping people to see is a prime motivator. I don't want to give up my other senses, but boy, if I don't have one useful eye, I’m, you’re sunk. And if you can have it surgically repaired, so now you have two functioning eyes, all the better. And having trained ophthalmologists and nurses around the world and other ophthalmic technicians [and] healthcare givers is the name of the game.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Kind of like you, I've bounced on and off the Orbis plane for, you know, the better part of 15 years. And people ask me: the faces and the names change, but what is consistent? And I always joke and I say it's the same circus, different clowns. That is unbelievable carefree spirit. People who really want an adventure. They want something that's going to change their life and the lives of others. Tell me what keeps drawing you back, what is that energy, what is that magic that I've only seen on the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital? What is that magic for you?

Sandy Burnett: The magic is seeing a light bulb go off in their head. When you just see a spark in someone's eyes like they get it. They've been given the boost of confidence to say: No, doctor, you keep your hands you hold the instrument up and I'll put the new instrument there. Or something of that kind. And, I guess, just giving them an opportunity that they wouldn't have if Orbis hadn't come around to share the repertoire of skills that we all, that the clowns we are that we bring to the circus, share.

So that's what I like to share is – with doctors and ophthalmologists around the world – that build up your nurses and make them more skillful with your knowledge and your patients will see the unity and commitment to care that comes more holistically – I don't really like that word – but when they see a strong nurse with the doctor and a strong ophthalmic technicians supported by the ophthalmologist, it just creates the best propaganda that you want to go there and have your eye surgery because these people have their act together and they're using and teaching.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: I've seen you use this guy many, many times on Orbis programs. Can you tell us who this guy is and all the different ways and all the different countries we've used this guy?

Sandy Burnett: Well that's Seymour, the bear. And he is gifted to the pediatric patients of all ages, if that reaches someone as an adult and that's fine too, but it's a way of sharing the eye care that we’ll be doing in terms of, perhaps, putting an IV in the arm, putting a bandage on the arm and also just putting a patch or plastic eye shield over the eye to help them understand that is how they will wake up after surgery and that this is your buddy. This is who's going to help you and be right with you along for the ride and, also, to go home with you. So for children, that's a great way to have something they can throw it, they can hug it, and it's comforting.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Yeah, and I've seen you use it as a teaching aid, where you'll actually put a little patch if the child has any surgery on the right eye, you'll put a patch on Seymour's right eye and you're telling them that when you wake up your eye’s going to be patched and don't take off the patch. “See, Seymour leaves the patch on!”

I've seen you use it not just as a comforting aid, but a teaching aid. I'm betting you have given more bears around the world than pretty much anybody. You're like Santa Claus, except you don't use reindeer, you use the Flying Eye Hospital.

Sandy Burnett: Really, thank you. Yes, I like that.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: And one of the things that sometimes people don't realize is, we will fly one of our staff doctors back six to eight weeks after the program on our surgical case review.

They will fly back commercially, not on the Orbis plane, and we'll see every single patient that we operated on. Well, especially on the pediatric weeks, the entire waiting room at the hospital will have kids holding on to this bear. And they probably have not let go of that thing for the six weeks because that's been the best toy or their best friend, as they, both the bear and the patient, recovered from eye surgery.

Sandy Burnett: And that's important that it’s just something that relates to them, that's on their level, and when you connect you just got it cemented and go with it. So, I say use everything that you've got, including lollipops, and, you know, crackers after surgery or such. But Mr. Seymour is very, very helpful.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Well, OMEGA is the one who actually donates these. Without them we wouldn't be able to do it. And I've seen cargo, we fill up the cargo whenever we do a restock, we have an entire shelf that are vacuum-sealed teddy bears that these bears can squish down and as soon as you cut them open these things pop out. It's hilarious.

Sandy Burnett: It is, it is.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Well, again, I just to say thank you so much for your time today. You've already put a smile on my face. It was a long week and it ended with an exclamation point with you. So thank you for being you.


Dr. Hunter Cherwek: That was Sandy Burnett, who reminded us of yet another beloved member of the Orbis family: Seymour, the teddy bear!

Next up, Captain Cheryl Pitzer, a FedEx pilot who volunteers her time to help us take the Flying Eye Hospital on its sight-saving missions around the world. Here’s my conversation with Cheryl.


Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Cheryl, thank you so much for joining us. Where are you right now in the world?

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: Well, thanks for having me. And right now I am in Anchorage, Alaska. And it's cold and rainy.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Okay, well I appreciate you making the time. I know, as always, we're working across time zones at Orbis, and certainly we appreciate all that you and FedEx are doing to keep things going now during the COVID crisis. I think you have one of the more interesting backgrounds of all the FedEx pilots I've gotten to know over the years. Maybe you could tell us about how you got started in aviation and how you've come up through the ranks in FedEx.

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: Sure. Well, when I was in college, I sold spring break trips and, by doing that, I was able to take free spring break trips and take my friends on free spring break trips. And so, when I got out of college my degree was in marketing and advertising and I wanted to go on vacation for free for the rest of my life. So, I started looking at airlines and the economy was not great at the time, but the Continental Airlines was hiring flight attendants at that time and, I thought, what a great way to get my foot in the door! And so, that’s what I did. I was a flight attendant for four years and, during that time, I was constantly in the cockpit asking questions and learning about the process to become a pilot. I knew I loved the lifestyle, so I started taking flying lessons and built my time and had various flying jobs until here I am at FedEx. And next month, actually, is my 25th anniversary at FedEx, so...

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Oh that's fantastic. And, I will say, it's an absolute pleasure working with you. You are one of the most high energy people and I always feel great when you’re on board. Things just go smoothly when Cheryl's involved. And, you know, certainly, all of us want to take a moment and thank you and your husband, Pete, who also volunteers as a pilot for Orbis – I think you two are the first husband and wife duo that's ever flown Orbis 1 – so you have a lot of honors in your journey as a pilot.

One of the things I definitely wanted to ask you was, when did you first hear about Orbis and how did you first become involved?

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: I think the first time I ever heard about Orbis was at Oshkosh, probably 10-15 years ago. Oshkosh is a major air show and my husband and I were there, and I'd seen the airplane and I'd heard the name before, but I didn't know much about it. And we stopped and saw the airplane and I just thought it was amazing. And, at that time, FedEx and United pilots were combining the duties of operating the airplane. And then, I knew FedEx had donated the new MD-10 aircraft to Orbis and I knew that they would need some more help with the MD-10, in particular, because it's a unique aircraft that only FedEx operates. So, I contacted the chief pilot at Orbis, Gary Dyson, and offered to help out. I was an instructor and an evaluator at FedEx at the time on that aircraft and I just told him [that] if he needed help training the pilots that I'd be happy to jump in. And he actually ended up inviting me to join the pilot cadre for Orbis, which is a huge honor. It's really…, there's a long line of people that want to do it because Orbis does such great work. Really incredible. So, it's very humbling.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Obviously, you all are just a top notch crew. One other thing that I always feel very confident, you all in the front of that plane, just like our volunteer faculty, are kind of the top of your field and literally have decades of flying and training experience. It's not unusual when we sit there and listen to you all talking and we ask, and sometimes we'll have a century of aviation experience just in that one cockpit, so it really is fun working with you all, and kind of learning about aviation.

One of the things, obviously you love travel. You said that's one of the reasons why you got involved with aviation to begin with, was not only the challenge, but the lifestyle. Maybe you can tell us where some of the most memorable experiences you've had with Orbis have taken place and what those moments have meant to you as both a pilot and a person?

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: Well, flying with Orbis is a much bigger challenge in a good way than flying with FedEx. At FedEx, we have normal routes and we do fly all over the globe. We have scheduled service to pretty much everywhere, including Africa now, which is new for us. And so, you have people that help you along the way. You have staff, the ground supports already there, people follow our flight plans for us, they order our fuel. We, as pilots, are able to just concentrate on actual just flying the airplane at the scheduled time.

With Orbis, we're going to places that we don't have all the services that we’re used to. We do a lot of flight planning ourselves, we have a lot more input into that, a lot more of the decision making. Orbis does a fantastic job of looking ahead at where we're going to go and they have all the appropriate information that we need for us to make those decisions and decide the best times to fly, the winds, the weather, and whatever else may be needed. We're just much more involved into a lot more remote places with Orbis, but that's what I like about it. That's what makes it fun.

One challenging place that sticks out in my experience was Mongolia. You can only go in one way and out the same way because of the terrain and the weather has to be just perfect and the winds have to be just perfect. So it takes a team effort to have the hospital packed up and everybody ready to go at a moment's notice when conditions are exactly right. And, like I said, we're very heavy, so the temperatures have to be a certain way to get the heavy aircraft off that runway safely. So, it's fun.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Well, you all make it look easy. And I think that's what any expert does is take a challenging situation, keep their composure, execute, and really, to the outside observer, make it look easy. I can tell you I was on that flight and you all made it look like it was just another day in the office. So, you know, hats off to you. And again, that speaks to your training and how you all have trust as a team in that cockpit.

What about from a personal standpoint? What did you see on that program? What do you see on Orbis programs that really kind of touch you as a human being and connect you to our mission?

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: That was one of the first times I got to see very much, a lot of times as the pilots we move the airplane to its destination and then get on a passenger airline and go home to go back to work. So, Mongolia is one of the times that I actually got to meet a few of the people. And in fact one was Bulgan, who is now an ambassador for Orbis, and it was so interesting to meet her because she was so thankful and really, really wanted to give back. And I think that speaks volumes to what Orbis does and it's really amazing. And it's amazing to get to know the people and hear about their country and what's really going on and not what you see in the news. So, some of my favorite parts.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Yeah, and again, I think one of the things people don't realize, as FedEx, you know, you're delivering gifts. You know, for the holidays, birthday gifts… But the most important gift that I see FedEx delivering is the gift of sight. Whether it's delivering corneas for transplantation, or if it's delivering the supplies to load up Orbis-1 or bringing the Flying Eye Hospital into these countries safely and letting us set up and do our training and our patient care programs. So again, you know, to me, I love it when the pilots can stay and be part of the power and get to know the patients that all the good work that you do to support our mission brings. So again, just a huge thank you!

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: Thanks. Well, it's funny. So at FedEx, I know, I have a plane full of stuff. I don't necessarily know what's back there; 99% of time I have no idea what's back there, or how important it is to the people that are receiving those packages. But with Orbis I do know, and I think that's part of the reason I find it so rewarding. Even if I'm not staying after delivering the airplane to see the actual surgeries or meet the patients, I know what I've delivered to them and that's what's so rewarding about it.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Yeah, and again, we're talking about your incredible accomplishments in aviation and, you know, people may not know that Orbis took the first flight in 1982 in a DC-8 aircraft. And now we're on our third-generation aircraft, an MD-10. But you and your co-worker and friend and fellow co-pilot, Cyndhi Berwyn, actually made Orbis history when you flew the first “unmanned” flight. And we had an all-female pilot crew. And I remember we were talking with you and you said, “For me, it was just another flight. The strange thing is that we're still talking about things like this.” Maybe you could expand upon that and talk about what you think about, you know, being the first all-female crew to fly Orbis-1.

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: Well, Cyndhi and I have flown many times at FedEx and I think that's where my comment came from, that it just seemed like a normal day to me. It's interesting, especially now that, you know, diversity and inclusivity is such a big topic, we don't have very many female pilots. I think only 4% maybe in the airline world are pilots. At FedEx, we have a little over 200 female pilots and I think only 77 captains. So we are a minority when you look at it that way and, maybe it's just because I have no other perspective than being a female pilot, it doesn't seem strange to me. And it does seem strange when we make a big deal about the first female crew at Orbis; to Cyndhi and I, I think, it didn't really seem that strange.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: Well, I can tell you, for those who don't know – and she's one of the beating hearts of the Orbis aircraft – our chief of aircraft maintenance and the mechanic who keeps the plane running every day when it's in hospital mode is Val Suberg. And, if you go down to the second level of the plane where all the aircraft maintenance and all of the aircraft supplies are kept, in her station, her workstation, she has a photo of you all in the cockpit and she's doing a selfie. And that is her favorite photo in the whole airplane. So I can assure you, while it may be strange that we're talking about this as a first for women pilots, I can tell you that was a big deal for Val and she loves being part of that, where she also is leading an aircraft team and doing a great job of it.

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: I'm glad you brought her up because she's really, really special. And what's interesting is, there are far fewer female aircraft mechanics than there are pilots. So for me, I love seeing her as part of Orbis and leading that team because it is— that really is unusual, and she really, she knows her stuff and does a great job and every time I step on that airplane I know everything is going to be perfect.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: So yeah, I think that's one of the things that makes Orbis so exciting is that you're going to places that probably you would not sometimes always go and you're bringing something very special with you. So, you know, whenever we have children come on the plane – either as patients or during goodwill tours or during air shows like how you got introduced to Orbis – I always ask children: Do you want to be a doctor or a pilot when you grow up? And sadly, 90% say pilot. What is it about aviation? How can I get these children to come over to the medical side and be part of Team Hunter. How can I do that?

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: Truthfully, I think it's because people don't understand what you do as well as they understand what a pilot is. My very best friend from college is in sales, and she used to be in IT sales, which, you know, if we were out and we meet people out somewhere and they'd say: What do you do? and she'd say: Well, I'm in such and such sales about such and such. And they kinda go, huh. And they look at me and say: Well, what do you do? And I’d say: Well, I’m a pilot. And it’s like: Oh, I was on this airplane one time or my uncle was a pilot. And she [my friend] would get so frustrated with that, but it was really more because people know what a pilot does.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: I would say almost everyone, even today, I will be sometimes watching Orbis take off or land when I am ahead of the plane on a planning visit, and I can tell you I still feel like a six year old. There's something magical about flight. When you meet a pediatric patient and see the transformative journey they've had, how does that make you feel when you see a kid walking off Orbis-1 and they have their sight back?

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: Speechless, literally speechless. I couldn't do what I do without my sight. You, as a surgeon, couldn't do what you do without your sight. I recently took my mother to get her cataracts done and, you know, it was no big deal. We made an appointment. We went to the doctor. Boom. She's done and she can see. And that's not true all over the world and, especially with the children, it's hard to fathom that you can't just do this all over the world. You guys make it look easy, you know, I watched the surgeries on the big screen on the airplane. And it's like, oh yeah, I do this, and I do that, and boom, they're sewn up and off they go, and they can see. And it looks easy. So, you think, well why do we even need Orbis? Why, isn’t this easy? No!

It's funny, you know, kind of back to what you asked a few minutes ago, that my very first Orbis trip, I was moving the airplane out of Vietnam. And so, for anybody that hasn't been on one of these trips, it takes a lot of time to pack up the hospital and get it all secure so the airplane can move it, so you and your staff and everybody gets that done, and then the surgeons go home and a lot of the hospital staff go home, a lot of the Orbis staff goes home, and then, we come in and just move the airplane.

So, my very first trip moving the airplane out of Vietnam, we go to leave and the health ministry wanted to thank us. Well, they wanted to thank you, but we were the only ones there, so they pull us into a room. I was with Val. And they're giving big speeches and they’re presenting us with flowers and they're very thankful for Orbis and everything that Orbis does, even outside of the aircraft. And I'm kind of standing there and Val pushes me in the back, she's like: That's you, you're representing Orbis. I’m standing up there like: thanks? You know, I did want to say all I do is move the airplane, the doctors do all the magic, but it was interesting because it was unexpected.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: I'm going to correct you for the first time in this interview and conversation. You are part of the Orbis team and I do want you to use the “we”. To me, that's what's magical about Orbis is taking people from 14 different countries, all six continents, taking people from totally different backgrounds: aviation, engineering, and medicine, and making this unbelievable team. And to me, one of the best things about Orbis is we’re the best example of functional diplomacy I've ever seen. Where people from all different walks of life, all different parts of the world, all different training and backgrounds, we come together and we do one thing, and we do it really well. So definitely, I love the fact you're representing Orbis. For me, you are just this incredible talent and ball of energy, but also that they see that Orbis is not just eye doctors. It takes a village to give a child their sight back and, for Orbis, that involves aviation and special pilots like you.

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: Yeah, that trip was interesting also, because they had to bring customs people down because that wasn't a normal airport that had customs. And so, they brought them down so we could all get out. And back to, you know, you talked about pilots. All of the people wanted to take pictures with us and that was really fun. And you hope that maybe somebody says: Oh, girls can be pilots.

And when we went to follow the flight plan with the aviation headquarters there, the woman who was helping us, her mother had been helped by Orbis the previous visit, several years earlier, and she was so thankful. And we got to bring her out and show her the airplane and it was, you just never know who you're going to touch, who you're talking to, so...

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: No, that's very true. And one of the things I've learned – like you were talking about your mother's experience and I'm so glad she's doing well after cataract surgery – everyone in one way or another is touched by visual impairment. Whether it's having a child need glasses, needing cheaters to read the menu at a restaurant, having a loved one – a grandmother or a parent – need cataract surgery. I do think that vision connects us all and, certainly, giving someone that sight back is something that they'll always remember and we've had patients come back and know that Orbis is in town 20 and 30 years later, just to thank us because they heard Orbis was back in that hospital or back at that airport. So, I will tell you, you've left a mark on literally hundreds of people for the rest of their lives, either through surgery or meeting with them or giving them a tour on the plane. And, to me, that's something I always love about Orbis is we’re not only an aspirational organization, we’re an inspirational organization as well.

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: So it's amazing to watch the whole Orbis team when we land and everybody jumps into action to unpack and it's everybody from the surgeons to the mechanics to everybody in there just jumps in. And you can tell everybody loves what they're doing. And it's, you know, you say that I bring an energy but the reality is, I'm feeding off of the energy of everyone else and it's just, it feels great.

Dr. Hunter Cherwek: I want to thank you. You know, you are just so awesome and not just as a friend and as a colleague, but just as a person and as a pilot. And thank you for all of the Orbis team for getting us to where we need to be.

Captain Cheryl Pitzer: Right back at ya, Hunter. I'm amazed by what you all do.


Dr. Hunter Cherwek: That was Captain Cheryl Pitzer. I want to thank both Captain Pitzer and Sandy Burnett for joining me on Sightlines, and of course for being a part of the Orbis family!

I want to thank you for being a part of the Orbis family, too. It’s been such a pleasure putting these episodes together for you; at a time when we’ve all had to stay apart, these Sightlines conversations gave us an opportunity to connect and reminisce.

Thank you for joining me for Sightlines. While this is our last episode of this season, you can find any episodes you’ve missed on our YouTube page or in our podcast feed. We’ve loved creating this series and we hope to be back in the future with new episodes.

If you would like to learn more about Orbis and the Flying Eye Hospital, please visit us at If you’ve enjoyed this show, please subscribe to our YouTube channel to watch each episode and check out many other videos about our work around the globe.

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Until next time!


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