Best of America: He Delivers to the Blind

In his spare time, this former FedEx pilot helps distribute cures for blindness around the globe.

from Reader's Digest Magazine | January 2009

You might think Jim Bevier—newly retired and finally kicking back—would be content on his Mississippi horse ranch, teaching his grandkids to ride. But this 62-year-old former FedEx pilot has another passion. Bevier is a volunteer pilot for Orbis, a nonprofit that has fought blindness in developing countries for more than 25 years (orbis.org).

One of its weapons is the Flying Eye Hospital, a converted DC-10 aircraft that houses a state-of-the-art surgical and teaching facility. Bevier’s mission is to land this giant sight-saving bird (as patients have described it) on runways that are most definitely not designed for it.

"It’s not like flying for FedEx," says Bevier. "We have to make sure the runway is long enough, get diplomatic clearances, figure out the fuel load, and find the safest place to park in case of a political coup."

Once he gets the hospital to its destination, it becomes a place for local doctors to get ophthalmologic training so they can treat conditions like glaucoma and cataracts and prevent blindness for thousands of people.

The plane stays on location for weeks, and while Bevier is free to return home, he likes to stay and meet those who arrive for screenings. Many walk on dirt roads for miles; many are blind children.

"I’ve seen them get on the airplane and come out the next day and they can see," Bevier says. The volunteer doctors can’t handle all the patients. A Vietnamese boy who had made Bevier a paper airplane was turned away. "A pilot’s job involves hours and hours of boredom and the occasional few seconds of stark terror. So you learn to keep your emotions in check. But when he didn’t get picked, I broke down," he admits.

Challenging as the gig may be, Bevier isn’t looking to retire anytime soon. "I don’t golf, I don’t have a recliner, and I tell my kids not to ever buy me those Velcro tennis shoes," he says. "You beat your body up getting there and back," he says of the Orbis flights, which can span 30 hours. "But I think of my grandchildren back home, and all I want is for those kids to be able to see their own grandparents for the first time."

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