ACU (Australian Catholic University)


Issue 1, Winter 2011

Sky’s the limit

Skys the limit

Flying nurse Heather Machin never knows what her day will bring, Caitlin Ganter spoke to the 31-year-old about her passion, patients and spending 85 per cent of the year away from home.

Heather Machin is the Director of Nursing for the ORBIS Flying Eye Hospital (FEH), which brings together dedicated eye care professionals and aviators to give the gift of sight to people in developing countries around the world.

On board the refurbished DC-10 jet aircraft, local doctors, nurses and biomedical technicians from impoverished nations work alongside ORBIS international's medical team to exchange knowledge and improve their skills.

"It's an incredibly diverse role. On any given day I can be working on accreditation and policy development, doing my nursing duties, serving as a flight attendant, helping with fundraising campaigns or even loading cargo," she said.

"The cases we see are often very severe and advanced eye conditions, but because of the huge amount of travel, sometimes the biggest challenge for me is simply remembering what day and time it is."

In the 48-seat classroom at the front of the plane, doctors give lectures, discussions and live broadcasts of surgical procedures being performed in the Flying Eye Hospital operating room.

The local trainees can observe the surgery and ask questions to the operating surgeons via a two-way, audio-visual system.

As the only Australian on board, Heather, a graduate from ACU's Bachelor of Nursing in Brisbane, is away from home for around 45 weeks of the year.

"I absolutely love my job, and it's really shown me what I'm capable of," she said. "Despite the thousands of different people we see every year, with 50 per cent of those being children, there are always especially inspiring patients that stand out.

"One is Esther, a five-year-old, severely cross-eyed orphan from a village in Uganda. Her resilience was amazing; she was always smiling, always dancing, and just the life of the party.

"The eagerness of the local medical staff to learn is also remarkable, they want so badly to gain the skills to help their people."

In the 19 months since she got the job, Heather has been to India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, Dubai, Oman, Niger, Nigeria, Uganda, China, Indonesia, Vietnam and more, to work on programs and planning.

"I particularly love returning to places I have worked before and seeing how the skills we helped them develop have made such a big difference to their practice," she said.

"There are people who I have worked with from all corners of the globe who I am now proud to call my friends."

Since its first program in 1982, the hospital has trained 960 ophthalmologists, performed more than 300 patient surgical cases on board, travelled to more than 70 countries and saved the sight of millions of people.

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