a publication of University Presbyterian Church, Seattle, Washington
by George Gulian
The middle-aged man sat in Todd Cranmore’s office one week after returning from a business trip to the East Coast. On the trip, trouble with his vision sent the man to the doctor for a checkup. Cancer was found. The next day, surgeons removed one of his eyes.
The 2-year-old girl and her parents also came to Todd’s office. Doctors had found cancer in both of the little girl’s eyes. Treatment suppressed the disease in one eye. But she had lost the other.
Though Todd has grown up around what is essentially the family business — making artificial eyes — he continues to be struck by how suddenly the loss of an eye can change a life.
“Someone could come into the office just a week or two after losing an eye,” Todd says. “It can be a pretty fresh wound to them – physically, mentally and emotionally. They have to adjust to the reality of having only one eye, or no eyes at all. A fair amount of healing needs to happen.”
Todd and his mother, Christie Erickson, operate Erickson Labs Northwest in Kirkland, where they pursue the science and craft of making ocular prosthetics – artificial eyes and scleral shells. Todd sees his job as “helping to restore people. The eyes are a huge focal point for just about every social interaction. People are always looking at your eyes. As far as society is concerned, if you’re missing an eye, you’re incomplete.”
The creation of artificial eyes has come a long way since the days when glassblowers traveled the country making eyes from a special glass imported from Germany. The term “glass eye” originated from that method, though the belief that the eyes were round, like marbles, is false. Then as now, artificial eyes are shaped like large oval contact lenses that include both iris and sclera (the white of the eye). During World War II, the special glass became hard to get and people began experimenting with various acrylics. Todd’s stepfather’s father started as an ocularist around that time. Christie has been a licensed ocularist for 20 years.
Today, the process of making an artificial eye begins with taking an impression of the eye socket. A cast is then made of the impression and is used to create a “blank” that matches the shape of the existing eye. The iris is hand-painted on a flat disc and a clear acrylic dome is added to magnify it and bring out the depth. After the iris is positioned and attached to the white blank, veining and tinting add the final touches. A well-fitted prosthetic allows realistic eye movement in most cases.
A great deal of effort goes into matching an artificial eye to the patient’s remaining eye, from the patterns and colors of the iris to the remarkably realistic veins, created with a special red thread that’s frayed and embedded in the acrylic.
The eyes last an average of five to seven years before the acrylic starts to deteriorate or the inside of the socket changes and the eye doesn’t fit anymore.
Todd estimates that 40 percent of his cases involve eye loss due to cancer. Often, the doctors are able to remove the eye and contain the cancer. “Yes, they’ve lost an eye. But it’s a true blessing they’re still alive.” Thirty to 35 percent are due to accidents and traumas like car accidents, gun injuries or a rock thrown by a lawnmower. Ten percent are the result of diabetes. Infections and genetic disorders account for the remainder.
Although both his mother and stepfather were ocularists, Todd planned since high school to become a doctor. At the University of Washington, he was totally consumed by his studies. His senior year, Todd became a Christian and began attending The INN – and his career plans began to unravel. “I had been completely focused on medical school and had worked toward it for eight years, but suddenly it didn’t feel like the right decision. I realized it wasn’t how I wanted to live my life. I felt it wasn’t how God wanted me to live my life.”
His mother and stepfather were divorced just before Todd’s senior year at the UW and Christie opened her own office in Kirkland. At the surprise office-warming party thrown by friends and family, Todd got another nudge in the right direction. “Friends of mine made comments to me that night. They knew me really well. They looked around and said, ‘Why aren’t you doing this?’ That really got me thinking.”
“A lot of prayer went into it, too. And when I prayed about this (becoming an ocularist), it just fit so perfectly.”
As soon as he started working, he knew he’d made the right decision – though convincing Christie took some doing. “She kept asking, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to try something else?’ It took me forever to convince her that this is what I wanted to do.”
According to Todd, an ocularist needs a combination of skills – artistry, attention to detail, engineering, some medical knowledge and a lot of psychology. “On the physical side, we’re taking what God has made, an iris – which is really a three-dimensional colored muscle – and replicating it with acrylic. If we do a good job, no one will realize a person has an artificial eye.”
Todd has found that his patients deal with eye loss in different ways. For the middle-aged man who had lost his eye while on a business trip, humor was his initial response. “He was masking the trauma with humor, and it worked for awhile. But after a couple of months, reality hit. He needed to process what had happened to him and deal with it.”
Todd and Christie try to make their office a place where that healing can begin. “Our office is one place where patients can find others who have a lot in common with them.” Todd says. “A 50-year-old man might lose an eye and come in not feeling very good about what he has to face. But he might sit in our waiting room next to a young child who has lost an eye or who may have no vision at all. The realization that they’re not alone in this can be really healing for people.”
Todd is officially an apprentice ocularist, but that’s about to change. “The apprenticeship requires five years of full-time hands-on work and self-study under a licensed ocularist. I’ve finished my hours – 10,000 total – and will be taking the test for my license soon.”
For six years, Todd has taught in the sixth grade (6D) class at UPC. “I started teaching when I was a pretty new Christian and it was an amazing thing for me. The kids were teaching me as much as I was teaching them. And the great thing is that’s still true.”
It was through 6D that Todd met his wife Tawnya, who is on the staff of Children & Family Ministries at UPC. “The second year I taught, 6D became one of her job responsibilities. Since she already knew everyone else on the teaching team, I think she was curious about who I was. At one point she asked me to run a half-marathon with her. Training a couple of times a week for several hours, we had lots of time to talk. After two months, we started dating.”
Recently, Todd has been challenged to share his faith more with his patients. “Especially when you get to know a patient pretty well and they’re struggling with something, you just want to say, ‘Turn to God – you can’t do this on your own.'”
One such patient was a sophomore in college. “He was putting up a brave front at first, thought he was doing pretty well, but after awhile he realized he wasn’t. I was able to talk to him and say, ‘Are you praying about this?” He recognized that he had turned from God and was angry this had happened to him. He was able to accept it and be forgiving. That was neat for me to be a part of that. If I hadn’t been a Christian, I don’t know how I would have responded.”
Todd finds the chance to spend time with his patients to be one of the most rewarding parts of the job. “It takes awhile to make a prosthetic. We usually get to know our patients pretty well. A lot of times, you almost feel like you become part of their family.”
Todd became especially close to the family of the 2-year-old girl who had lost her eye to cancer. “They spent a lot of time in the office. They were grateful for what we were doing. Both parents asked us to pray that the suppression of the cancer in their daughter’s other eye would take.”
But a year later, the mother called to say that they needed to make “another pretty eye” for her daughter. “It was a shock,” Todd says. “I didn’t want to do it. We had made one, and I didn’t want to make a second one. It was heartbreaking to see her again.”
But the family’s attitude taught him a valuable lesson. “The family had prayed about it and felt at peace. Life goes on. Their daughter was still alive and completely accepted for who she was. She had lost her vision, but she was perfectly healthy in every other way and excited about the things she’ll be doing. That’s the thing that continues to impress me most – the adversity that people have to go through and the grace with which they do it.”