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Unexpected Career

Anne M. Eccles

On a warm August night the summer he was 17, Roy McDonnell was driving two high school friends home from a softball game. The boys laughed and joked, reliving their victory. But suddenly their laughter died as they topped the crest of a hill. Another car had crossed over the yellow line and was hurtling straight toward them, moving too fast for McDonnell to turn out of the way.

The accident changed the direction of his life and led him into a career he had never anticipated.

The collision demolished both cars, but only McDonnell was seriously injured. Riding to the hospital - his face and leg bandaged - he thought, I'm lucky to be alive. But relief quickly turned to fear when the physician took the bandage off his face. He couldn't see with his left eye!

His leg healed with time, but McDonnell's left eye was damaged beyond repair and had to be surgically removed three days after the accident.

The first week after the eye's removal was the most difficult for McDonnell. He put on a brave front for his friends, but inside he was scared. He wondered how he would look, how his vision would be, if he'd ever be able to drive or play ball again. Faith and confidence in the doctor helped, and the support of his father, older brother and twin sister. But mainly it was thinking of his mother, who had died of cancer only a year and a half before, that helped McDonnell accept and adjust to losing his eye.

"She was a powerful force in my life," he says. "She went through so much that I thought whatever I had to go through couldn't be worse."

When McDonnell was ready to leave the hospital, the ophthamologist explained that he could be fitted with an artificial eye in about six weeks.

Meanwhile, he needed to adjust to life with only one eye. He had lost about 10 to 20 percent of his field of vision and found his depth perception impaired. He practiced gauging distances and turning his head more often to extend his field of vision. He spent hours relearning how to walk down stairs, step off curbs, and cross streets. And how to pick himself up off the floor when he misjudged a step and fell flat on his face! Happily, he learned that with practice and mirror modifications on his car, he would be able to drive safely.

Within two weeks, determined to continue to play baseball, he started tossing a ball around with a friend. It was more difficult to judge the ball coming toward him than moving away, but he kept practising. He switched his playing position to right field where his decreased left side vision did not matter so much. And within months McDonnell was playing varsity baseball!

Soon McDonnell found himself back in classes and beginning his senior year. Besides dealing with the loss of one eye, he needed to decide on a career. He liked to draw and paint so he considered pursuing art. But he also had an interest in helping others - like his father, a pharmacist.

Meanwhile, his eye socket healed, McDonnell met an ocularist who would custom fit and handpaint an artificial eye. McDonnell sat across from this professional who was observing the colors in his client's eye. Fascinated,he watched the ocularist paint, slowly, painstakingly, delicate stroke after delicate stroke. Gradually, the ocularist created a lifelike replica of his right eye.

As McDonnell watched the ocularist, an idea enetered his mind. Here was a way to combine working at art with helping people. He could become an ocularist!

After graduation from high school, McDonnell studied fine arts in college to enhance his ability to paint and sharpen his eye-hand coordination. Then, he apprenticed for five years while he learned to make ocular prostheses: artificial eyes which replace eyes that have been removed or are missing and scleral cover shells which fit over blind or disfigured eyes. He became certified by the National Examing Board of Ocularists.

At first, McDonnell concentrated on learning the techniques of taking impressions, making molds, painting prostheses. But as he became more confident in his skills, he was better able to listen to patients' problems. Now they tell him about their accidents, operations, changes the loss of an eye has made in their lives, and their concerns for the future.

"I cannot give people back their sight," he says, "but I can provide a comfortable prosthesis and help improve their appearance." And he encourages patients to concentrate on what they can do, as well as offering suggestions of how to cope with altered vision.

In this occupational field, he touches and is touched by courageous people of all ages. Among the children, some have been born without one or both eyes or with poorly developed eyes. And some have had diseases necessitating removal of an eye.

Ginnie, age two, has a rare genetic disease. Her eye had become sightless and small so was finally removed. After McDonnell made the prosthesis, her parents were astonished at how well it looked.

"Little kids won't stare and point at her eye anymore," her mother said. "And, our little girl can look at us with two eyes now."

Martha, 42, who had part of her eye removed because of complications from diabetes, grinned widely on her first visit after receiving her prosthesis.

"When I went to work, my friends couldn't tell which eye was not natural," she said.

McDonnell feels that being able to get on with your life after losing an eye is most important. "With a little work, you can do practically anything you want - even participate in some sports," he says. He feels he himself is a better bowler now because it's easier to judge things moving away from him.

One of his patients, Karl, a college student, loves sports. When he was five, a nail punctured his eye and ophthalmologists had to partially remove it. McDonnell checks Karl's prosthesis regularly for rough areas that can cause irritation. While he works he and Karl discuss sports and McDonnell stresses the importance of protecting both the prosthesis and the remaing eye by using safety glasses or goggles.

"He understands what it's like," Karl said. "He can relate."

Often when McDonnell sees patients for the first time, he sees himself as he was - apprehensive, angry, depressed, and still adjusting to a traumatic event. And skeptical. He senses some of them thinking: Look at this young guy! He's never had any problems. How would he know what it's like? But after he tells them he's been there, they realize they are not alone and can share their cares and frustrations.

Some of his adult patients have had tumors and some glaucoma, which can cause such high pressure within the eye that it becomes sightless and painful. Others have had accidents, such as falling and striking their eyes on pointed ends of tables or getting shot with BB guns. Some have been hit with sticks, balls, bats, paper clips, wood chips, and nails. Within a few seconds, someone's life has been forever changed.

Vergil injured his right eye 17 years ago. Despite surgery, he lost the vision in one eye. Over the years other problems ensued, and the eye's appearance changed. He dreaded having to get an artificial eye although he felt uncomfortable and dissatisfied with his appearance.

But then he discovered that he needed only part of his eye removed. Instead of an artificial eye, he would wear a scleral cover shell and because his eye muscles would remain intact, the prosthesis would have good movement. Now, satisfied, Vergil visits new patients to help allay their fears.

McDonnell finds his work challenging and rewarding because he enjoys people interaction and the creativity involved in making prostheses.

"You don't need to be one-eyed yourself to be a good ocularist," he says. "But if sharing my experiences can perhaps lessen the pain and change someone's life for the better, then my job is more than complete."

"I would never have heard of this work except for my accident," he says. "To a 17-year-old high school senior, the accident seemed like the beginning of a major obstacle. Now, I know that night was the beginning of an opportunity."