She doesn’t ask how they lost the eye. “I don’t like it to be traumatic,” Nancy Lambert said. She can empathize; she’s pushed through the same trauma. But because of it, she found a career and a partner.
Lambert is an ocularist at the Dean A. McGee Eye Institute in Oklahoma City. She creates ocular prostheses, or false eyes.
“I’m the end of the road at Dean McGee,” she said. “When all else fails, they see me. I get to put them back together.”
If an eye can’t be saved, a surgeon at the institute will remove it and insert an implant.
They attach the ocular muscles to the implant, allowing it to move like a natural eye. Lambert designs a cap to cover the implant so that it looks like a real eye.
It’s a cosmetic fix, but an important one, she said.
“It’s a confidence thing for people,” she said. “It really makes a difference in how the world perceives you.”
Perfectionist at work
There is no blue paint in a blue eye. That’s for the sclera.
“I don’t literally take blue and make a blue eye,” Nancy Lambert said. “I start with gray. Then I put white on top. That gives the pattern. Then I tint it ... with yellows and grays.”
Eight weeks after the implant is placed, patients see Lambert. She constructs the eye in one day. It takes about seven hours.
There are two rounds of artwork. During the first, she paints the iris on a piece of foil. She starts at the pupil and works out.
“I’m paying attention to the anatomy when I’m putting this together,” she said. “I make sure I build those colors the way they’d be naturally, from front to back.”
She adds a cornea, a clear lens that gives the iris depth.
Lambert takes a cast of the eye socket, fills the cast with a doughy substance and adds the iris and cornea to the front.
She takes this to the lab, where it is cured and hardened.
Many ocularists have lab technicians, but Lambert doesn’t. She prefers doing the work herself.
“When you’re a perfectionist, it’s hard to let go,” she said.
After, she starts the second round of artwork: tinting the white and creating veins.
She tints the white of the eye, or the sclera, with a few colors, including blue. Leaving it totally white looks unnatural, she said.
The veins are made of red silk thread. She shreds the string with a scalpel. She dips a paintbrush in glue and glazes the eye with the fibers.
After some more curing, the eye is done.
The caps last five to eight years. They don’t need to be removed except during biannual cleaning appointments. Like on contact lenses, salt proteins from tears build up on the caps.
The caps have a profound effect on their owners, she said.
“It becomes part of their life — part of their identity,” she said.
She would know. She crafted the prosthetic in her own eye.
After an accident, she underwent a handful of surgeries to save her vision. They were unsuccessful.
“Eventually, it didn’t look nice,” she said.
Before she left for college, she decided she wanted to improve her appearance. She went to an ocularist in her hometown, Ontario, Canada.
At the time, it took three days to make a prosthetic. She spent all three days in his office.
She planned to study art in college, and realized she could become an ocularist. She soon began her five-year apprenticeship, then started her career at his practice.
Thirty-six years later, Lambert helps patients through the same trauma she experienced.
“I’m fortunate to lose an eye,” she said. “It put me in a position to help others that do.”
Because of how much time they spend together during the first appointment, Lambert said she gets to know all of her patients.
Because of the biannual cleanings, those relationships last for years.
She is close with all of the patients, but she became close to one in particular: her husband.
“I took care of him for 20 years,” she said.
When she left Ontario for Dean McGee in 1998, he asked around until he could contact her. They had only a virtual relationship, using Skype and telephone calls. She didn’t date, she said. Her children came first.
He didn’t give in. She agreed to meet up with him when she was in France for an international ocularist conference.
They went on their first date in Paris.
Although he might have been her favorite patient, she cherishes the time she spends with the others.
“I’ve been doing this for 36 years and I still love to come to work every day,” she said. “They’ll probably carry me out of here when I can no longer see.”