ABC Radio Interview – Paul Geelen with James O’Loghlin

Transcript of interview.

Paul Geelen interviewed by James O’Loghlin, ABC Local Radio. Sydney, Australia. February 2007

Topics covered in this interview:

  • A description of the process of making artificial eyes.
  • How most people lose their eyes today.
  • The launch of a project to gather the history of ocularists in Australia.

James: A couple of days ago there was a story that a 5000-year-old golden artificial eye from ancient Persia has been found by Iranian and Italian archaeologists. So we thought that we might try and work out where we are at the moment in terms of artificial eyes. Now these aren’t bionic eyes or anything, these are just, if you have the misfortune to lose an eye, the replacement. We tracked down Paul Geelen who creates, he makes artificial eyes and he is called an Ocularist. And he joins us on the line from Perth.

Hi Paul.

Paul: Hi James how are you going?

James: Very good thanks. Now you and your sister have been making artificial eyes for how long?

Paul: For eighteen years now.

James: So how did you get into that very, sort of, specific line of work?

Paul: This is a family business. My mother learnt to make artificial eyes in the early eighties and she trained me how to do it and I taught my sister.

James: How did she get into it?

Paul: She came, she had a nursing background, we lived in Papua New Guinea for many years. We came back to Perth in Western Australia and she was looking for something where she could work on her own. She found the business for sale; some medical experience would be good, but not necessary. So she bought the business the first day she came back. So it was quite unexpected and unplanned.

James: So are the people who mainly need your assistance those who have lost an eye from some form of accident or misfortune?

Paul: Mostly it is through disease. Certainly in Perth it is mostly through disease. Historically war has been a big reason for people losing eyes. In the early seventies and prior to people wearing seat belts, motor vehicle accidents were a big reason for people losing eyes. But now mostly it is through cancers, diabetes and diseases of the eye.

James: So if someone approaches you and says look I’ve lost an eye. I guess they have the initial question of artificial eye or patch or sunglasses? I guess there are various options yeah?

Paul: If someone loses an eye they are really interested in what is available and what is involved in having an artificial eye made up. After someone has had an eye removed they have to wait six weeks for the eye socket to heal before they have a prosthesis made up. Six to eight weeks. When they come and see us there are five sittings as we have the prosthesis made up. We will start off by taking an impression of the eye socket.

James: How do you do that?

Paul: We use a syringe with alginate, which is derived from seaweed. It’s the same material you use to take a dental impression. You put that into the eye socket. It takes about a minute to set.

James: Is that painful?

Paul: It’s cold. It is unpleasant but it isn’t painful. With young children we’ll see them in hospital under a general anaesthetic because they have a real fear of the syringe and so we couldn’t get a good impression if they are too young.

James: So you take the impression, then what do you do?

Paul: On the first visit we take the impression and we paint the iris. So it is all hand painted, we mix our own paints that are made up with the same materials that the prosthesis is made up with. – Which is methyl methacrylate…acrylics. So we paint the iris. On the second visit we have made up a shell from the impression, which is made up of plastic. We’ll fit the iris, which we have painted. We would have developed a cornea over the front of it so the colours will life like.

James: So when you paint it, you have an artificial iris and you look at their other eye and you try and match it do you?

Paul:Yes we cut a black button turned up on a lathe and we hand paint on to that while the person is sitting in the chair.

James: That must be quite difficult.

Paul: It is involved. It takes a while to learn how to match the colours. We spend probably forty-five minutes to an hour with someone on that first visit. A lot of it is really chatting with people, getting to know them. A lot of people have a lot of questions. In this first visit, they have been through a traumatic experience, so we spend a lot of time with the clients. Through that a lot of it is just drinking coffee and talking about their experiences. It helps them come to terms with the loss of the eye and try to create the image that makes them whole again.

James: Ok so you’ve got the impression, you’ve painted the iris, and then the next time what is it?

Paul: On the next visit we will work on the shape. It is a wax model. We are trying to position the iris so it is lined up with the other eye. We want to make the eyelids sit nicely over the prosthesis. To do that we bring the iris forward and try to fill the volume of the eye more which will open the eye. If it is too open we can recess the iris. There is other little techniques we can use to try and get that comfortable and natural look.

James: OK and then how many other visits are there? How many times do you have to see the person after that?

Paul: Well that is the second visit. On the third visit we match up the white of the eye. We put the veins in. The veins that we use are red threaded cotton, which we glue on to the painting surface. Over the top of that we will put a clear veneer of plastic about 1mm thick. That won’t aggravate the eye socket because it has a polished finish on it. But we will put the veins in; get the right pupil size or a good approximation of it. Of course the pupil changes with different light conditions. We touch up the iris on that visit. On the fourth visit we will have the eye polished and we will fit the eye. We will teach someone how to remove the eye for cleaning and how to put it back.

James: So how do you get it out and put it back in?

Paul: You can use a suction cup, which sort of creates a bit of a handle for the prosthesis. You lift it out over the bottom lid and to put it back in you lift up the top lid, you slide the prosthesis under the top lid and pull the bottom lid down and it will fall into place.

James: And is that something that you know is pretty easy?

Paul: It is really easy once you have done it a few times. But it is a difficult thing to learn. We are taught from a young age not to touch our eyes, leave your eyes alone

James: But it is not really your eye is it?

Paul: It is not an eye. But when someone has just lost an eye. Especially when they are looking in the mirror and they have been fitted for the first time. They are looking at an eye looking back at them. So there is a psychological barrier. They have to understand. We do explain to people. Look this looks a lot like an eye but really it is just a piece of plastic. Once you come to terms with the fact that it is just a piece of plastic it is a lot easier to handle because there are people who do not like to touch the prosthesis at first. They are just very nervous and it is just something that people get used to fairly quickly.

James: And if you do get an artificial eye when you are young how often do you need to change it, as you get bigger?

Paul: If we see babies and kids up to the age of two we will bring them back every six weeks. We will make up two prostheses for them. We keep one in the laboratory, which we can expand and make larger and they take the other one. Usually with young children they lose their eyes generally from retinoblastoma, which is a tumour in the eye. So they will go back into theatre every three months for an EUA an examination under anaesthetic of the other eye. When they do that we use the opportunity to take another copy of the shape of the eye.

James: If kids are six, then eight, then ten do you have to change it every couple of years. How often do they have to come back?

Paul: We just tell the parents to come back when they believe it is ready. We like to get them back every year for the maintenance and polishing of the eye. But when they get to six they may not need another one until they are ten or twelve. Then a lot of kids don’t come back until they are in their twenties. A lot of them should come back earlier but a lot of kids will leave it. They can wear it for ten years at that stage. Although we recommend people have the eye replaced every five years. A lot of people are reasonably casual with that.

James: Right, I see that they get very used to it. Now I believe at the moment you are trying to do a bit of a history of artificial eye makers in Australia. How are you going to do that?

Paul: I was asked to write something about Alex Powell who died a couple of years ago. He was a Master Ocularist in Perth for many years. He passed his business on to my mother, who passed it on to me. People come in and sit in the old dental chair of his. We still have a lot of his old tools around. But we really didn’t know a lot about him. So we started to ask our older clients for stories about him and while we were doing that we thought we would like to find out some more about the other characters that have been involved in making artificial eyes around Australia. In Perth there were two people who used to come across from the Eastern states, Mr Schaler and Mr Schulmaster who would visit Perth for short periods and see people to fit artificial eyes. One of them made glass eyes and one of them made acrylic eyes. We don’t know a lot about them so we are hoping that people can share their stories with us and we can develop a bit of a history and learn more about the early pioneers of the industry.

James: Alright Paul, thank you very much for telling us all about that and good luck. Nice to talk to you. Paul Geelen who is an artificial eye maker. I don’t think there are too many of them in Australia.

You’re on ABC Local Radio with James O’Loghlin.