Volunteers' Week: Orbis nurse reflects on delivering virtual training during the pandemic

Ann-Marie Ablett is a theatre practitioner nurse and Orbis Ambassador. She has been an Orbis volunteer for 18 years. Over the years, Ann-Marie has used her annual leave to train hundreds of nurses around the world in the fight against preventable blindness.

Her 30-plus assignments aboard the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital have taken her to 15 countries around the world such as India, Bangladesh and Zambia. The nurses she has trained will have helped to save the sight of thousands of people in some of the most remote parts of the world.

Although the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital is not travelling, our mission remains in flight. All Flying Eye Hospital training is now delivered virtually and Ann-Marie’s virtual nursing training saw nurses from low-to-middle income countries, such as a team in Peru, learn about the use of PPE in ophthalmology theatres and how to best manage the psychological effects of COVID-19.

Reflecting on how the pandemic took everyone by surprise and the psychological impact it had on her and colleagues, Ann-Marie says: “What I have learned is we were all frightened, and it's alright to be frightened because this is so real and it's something we had never experienced before.” She adds, “Any emotion, any doubt, any fear that you had was quite normal. What the training revealed is speak to somebody as another person will have the same problem, the same issues.”

This duty of care amongst nurses is something which Ann-Marie is familiar with from her years of volunteering for Orbis. Speaking about the dedication to learn from nurses in low-to-middle countries she says, “When someone comes up to you and says teach me you are three quarters of the way there.” She noted from her many years volunteering that nurses in low-to-middle income countries often have to be inventive with their limited equipment, from a nurse turning a 23 gauge needle into a retinal picks in Zambia (a skill she brought back to the NHS), to a nurse balancing a child with an intravenous bag - minus a stand – while moving to an anaesthetic room in Chittagong, Bangladesh. Despite their limited resources she says, “Nurses in developing countries the world over, and I've travelled to many, focus on delivering safe and best patient care.”

For Ann-Maire, there is one nurse whose dedication she will never forget, Monica whom she worked with while on a Flying Eye Hospital trip to Kitwe, Zambia, “I was with her one day and I said, ‘When’s the baby due?’ She said, ‘Today, I'm just walk over to the maternity unit to have the baby.’ She was going to work until she went into labour! That’s the commitment that Monica made to patient care.”

The level of commitment from nurses worldwide has been vital throughout this pandemic. Ann-Marie recognises that many nurses struggled and went to dark places psychologically, which is why her virtual training has been so valuable.

What you must do is talk. It’s alright to feel frightened, it’s alright to sit down and cry, because you're so frightened.

Ann-Marie

Theatre Practitioner Nurse and Orbis Ambassador

She adds that telling colleagues you are struggling is empowering and helps other nurses. “The strongest thing in the world right now is to talk about your fears and how you want to run and hide. And how you don't want to go to work, but you will go.”

Looking back on her months working as a nurse since the outbreak of COVID-19, Ann-Marie says, “I have never been more proud to be a nurse than during this pandemic.” She praised the support of local businesses and hotels that were willing to offer accommodation to nurses so they did not have to travel long distances between shifts.

The Flying Eye Hospital would not be able to operate if it were not for a family of dedicated volunteers like Ann-Maire. Looking back on what the feeling is like when returning from a trip she says, “I can't describe the feeling it's just something deep down that makes you want to scream from 37,000 feet. I’ve helped made a difference and I know the difference it is going to make. And it makes a difference for generations to come. When you consider how many people Orbis has supported, in many countries and for patients over the past 40 years or so, it's just breathtaking. I think - I've been a part of all of that.”

We can’t wait to see you on board the Orbis Flying Eye Hospital again Ann-Marie. Thank you for helping save the sight of thousands worldwide.