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Father-and-son art is a real eye-popper

Fake eyes are made to match or catch one's eye Dave Parrott lost his right eye when he was 2 years old.

He was "playing with some kids, and a 10-year-old kid had a bow-and-arrow set he'd gotten for his birthday," said Parrott, 42. "He was kind of playing William Tell, and he shot my eye out."I remember him in front of me, and I remember the arrow, I sure do. I do not remember the pain."

Readers, however, no doubt can feel Parrott's pain: Ouch! But don't cry for him, no matter how many good eyes you have left to produce the tears. Because one man's injury is another man's fashion accessory.

Parrott, in fact, flaunts his Cyclopean status with a series of "novelty eyes" that he wears most days instead of a more traditional artificial eye of matching brown.

"I've got a cat's eye with a vertical pupil, Parrott said. "That's my favorite. And I have a black one, with an Egyptian god in the middle. And I've got my red one that I wear at Halloween that has a horizontal, gold-color pupil.

"I do have a brown one that matches my remaining eye almost perfectly, but I'll usually put that one in only when I'm out of town on business. Normally, the one I really wear out and about is my cat's eye.

"I'm one of those people, if you've got a handicap, have fun with the darn thing. I have a blast."

The makers of these so-called glass eyes are Bob and Rob Thomas, a father-and son team with offices in Memphis. The father, 60-year-old Bob Thomas, is Tennessee's only certified fitter and fabricator of "ocular prosthetics."

"It's a fun place to work, said the son, 27-year-old Rob Thomas, brandishing an artificial eye that stared with a lifelike if glassy gaze through a dark pupil and a lovely hazel iris. The iris was set like a jewel inside a realistically veiny and discolored sclera (the white of the eye).

Although most people still refer to false eyes as "glass eyes, most artificial eyes since the late 1950s have been made from hard acrylic, not glass. Also, these prosthetics are not marblelike orbs that fit into the socket like a round plug. Rather, they are convex shells that fit over an implant in the socket like a fat contact lens.

In fact, the fitting and fabrication of artificial eyes is an art-cum-science similar to denture-making or the manufacture of other false body parts.

"Years ago, there used to be stock eyes," said Bob Thomas, a former president of the American Society of Ocularists who has been making eyes for 39 years. "A patient would go into the eye fitter's office . . . look in a drawer and pick out a pre-made eye to fit the socket. "

Now, however, ocular prosthetics are painstakingly detailed to match the patient's remaining eye as closely as possible - except, of course, when a patient like Parrott asks for a "gag eye" (gag as in joke, not choke, although Parrott admits that some who see his novelty orbs experience the latter reaction).

The American Society of Ocularists keeps no statistics on how many people in the United States wear artificial eyes, but the number is greater than most might think. The Thomases' current patient roster includes more than 1,200 people from the region and scores more from around the world, including many children from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital who have lost an eye to cancer.

The laboratory looks like a cross between an eye doctor's office and a special-effects studio. The Thomases wear doctor-style white coats and maintain a neat and magazine-laden waiting room, but the back offices reveal trays filled with sample eyes and plenty of tools for sanding, painting and mold-making.

Acrylic eyes were developed after World War II, when the world no longer was able to import German-made glass eyes. Nowadays, eyes are made through something ocularists call the "modified impression technique," which is similar to denture manufacture. Bob Thomas, in fact, was a dental technician in the Navy before he made the career shift to eyes, first working as an apprentice with a New York firm.

Patients usually are referred to the Thomases about six to eight weeks after their "enucleation" - the surgical removal of the damaged eye.

The surgeon inserts a spherical implant in the socket that "helps make up for lost volume," Bob Thomas said. The latest implants are porous, which allows blood vessels to grow into it, like roots growing into one of those Styrofoam planters. This "vascularized" implant is able to move somewhat, in coordination with the remaining natural eye.

To measure a patient's socket, the ocularist uses a small, hollowed device, shaped somewhat like a contact lens with a handle. While inside the socket, this device is injected with an alginate similar to that used by a dentist to make an impression of teeth. The resulting mold, which conforms to the shape needed for the artificial eye, is the first step in a series of processes that eventually result in a painted and cured "eye" that is converted from wax to acrylic.

During the process, a "pupil" - a tiny black plastic circle - is added to the mold. The iris and sclera are painted, which requires the Thomases to really shine as artists (little of the "white" of a person's eye is actually white).

"Veins" are created through the use of minuscule red cotton threads. Said Bob Thomas: "We had one guy who said, `Put a few extra veins in there so I can have a few extra beers and my wife won't know it. Creating an artificial eye is a daylong process. The cost of an eye is usually about $1,500, although novelty eyes aren't as expensive because "they don't have to be as exact, Rob Thomas said.

The Thomases also create other prosthetics, as necessary. Their scrapbooks are filled with before-and-after photographs of patients who have suffered through all sorts of injury. For instance, some customers have lost not just an eye but an entire facial region. This requires the manufacture of fake cheeks, brow ridges, noses and other parts. These often are attached to a pair of glasses, so they can be removed easily at home.

Artificial eyes basically are held in place through the pressure of the fit and by the eyelids. They should be cleaned at home every few months with a mild facial soap. In addition, patients are asked to make a yearly visit to their ocularist to have their artificial eye polished, sterilized and thoroughly cleaned of "protein buildup. A good eye should last five to seven years.

How are natural eyes lost? The causes are many, the Thomases said, including disease, infection, birth defects, gunshot wounds, yard darts, paperclips shot across classrooms and errant golf balls. "When your mother tells you not to run with scissors, listen," Bob Thomas said.

William B. Walls, 74, who visited the Thomases for his annual checkup earlier this month, lost his left eye in 1985 after it developed malignant melanoma.

"You have to learn to drive all over again, I'll tell you that," he said of the change in depth perception, as Bob Thomas extracted the artificial eye from its socket with a tiny suction cup attached to a handle.

Now, however, Walls is perfectly comfortable with his artificial, matching eye.

"Nobody even notices it." Walls, however, doesn't go in for novelty eyes, unlike many of the Tho-mases' patients.

Many people want eyes associated with their favorite sports team, Bob Thomas said. He said he has manufactured orbs decorated with the University of Tennessee logo, the fleur-de-lis of the New Orleans Saints and a Texas longhorn.