Optical Illusions

Years ago Bob Thomas dreamed of designing cars. With high hopes and a bit of drafting experience, he sent sketches to Chrysler and General Motors. But along the way, the life of this Pennsylvania native took some unusual turns. After a stint in the navy as a dental apprentice and at a Veterans' Administration eye clinic, he learned to make prosthetic eyes.

Today he and his son, Rob Thomas, are the only board-certified ocularists in the Memphis area, crafting some 300 acrylic orbs each year for people who lose their eyes to accidents or disease. Their company -- Thomas' Ocular Prosthetics Laboratory -- has been in Memphis since 1974 and has three Mid-South branches.

With patients ranging in age from 9 days to 90 years, father and son help children with retinoblastoma, or eye tumors, and elderly people with glaucoma. Others wind up in the Thomases' office after suffering any number of traumas, from gunshot wounds and automobile injuries to mishaps at home.

Before patients are referred to the Thomases, they visit a surgeon who removes the damaged eye. In its place, the surgeon implants a porous sphere that allows blood vessels to grow into it. Once the implant has stabilized, the patient is sent to the Thomases' lab, where the ocularists go to work. They take an impression of the eye socket and create a wax pattern that ultimately becomes an acrylic shell that attaches over the implant. "It's really like a large contact lens," says Rob, who has worked in his father's practice since his teenage years.

To make the eye more realistic, Thomas and son add cotton fibers for "veins." They also have an array of hand-painted "irises" they can match to the patient's natural eye. After a day-long process, during which they counsel with the patient, the Thomases enjoy a satisfying moment. "We watch them smile at how they look and send them home," says Bob. For those who have lost both eyes, "the families are just amazed. They're especially elated for their kids."

A sense of humor helps some patients deal with their loss, and a few clients even order "gag" eyes. One such "gag" is painted black with a diamond in the center; another is orange and boasts a "T." The most unusual decoration, says Rob, is a Playboy bunny. With a hearty laugh and a headful of flaming hair, Bob smiles along with his clients about a profession some might consider macabre. Ditto for Rob, who opens with gusto a drawer filled with sample "eyes" and says, "I used to love taking these to school."

Flipping through a scrapbook labeled "Our Gang," father and son glance at photos clients have sent them over the years. The scrapbook gives them pleasure, and it offers new clients comfort," says Bob. "They'll see the pictures here and think, 'Well, gee, I'm not the only one this happens to.'"

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