Matching prosthetic eye lights up the face of wounded Iraqi boy

by John Beale - Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peering around a corner of the small waiting room yesterday, Abdul Hakeem Ismael Khalaf Hussein flashed a set of virtually identical brown eyes — one of them not even minutes old — at several cameras, causing one woman to well up with tears of joy.

The 7-year-old Iraqi boy broke a smile, blinked and made brief eye contact with Maria Roberts, who was trying unsuccessfully to mask her emotions.

Almost seven hours after Abdul Hakeem walked into ocularist Walter Tillman’s Downtown office, his lone dark brown eye, which once stood in contrast to a pale, opaque and unseeing eyeball on the left side of his scarred face, had been joined with a brown acrylic prosthesis that was flushing life back into the child’s face.

Ms. Roberts, who has been ushering the boy and his father around Pittsburgh to countless doctor’s appointments for the past month, has watched the boy’s face slowly transformed by a set of corrective surgeries to fix deformities caused by an explosion at his Fallujah home.

A giddy Abdul Hakeem sat between his father and Ms. Roberts yesterday after the hours-long procedure. He complained of hunger and quizzed his father on why Ms. Roberts welled up as he walked out to show off his new eye.

“This is the happiest I have seen him since we arrived in America,” said a similarly grinning Ismael Hussein, the boy’s father. Mr. Hussein bought two extra 30-minute phone cards to tell his wife, Falliah, all about their son’s new eye last night. Mr. Hussein grabbed his son’s face after the procedure and kissed him.

Abdul Hakeem was anxious as he counted the hours and then the minutes in anticipation as Mr. Tillman meticulously crafted the brown “with reddish-mahogany highlights” prosthesis. The prosthesis fits over the boy’s damaged eyeball, much like a large contact lens, to make it look like a normal eye.

“I just want to see it,” said the boy. Mr. Tillman finished crafting the eye around 4:30 p.m. as he worked through constant media interruptions and Adbul Hakeem’s insistent curiosity.

“Most people seem to think that all you need is brown to paint brown eyes,” said Mr. Tillman, showing off some of the micro-thin brushes in his office. “That is not the case. In infants many times there are bluish hues and even reddish tints. Adbul Hakeem’s eye had reddish-mahogany highlights.”

The ocularist placed the acrylic plastic eye over the boy’s eye socket and watched in amazement as Abdul Hakeem used the full range of his eye muscles. Mr. Tillman said he feared that Abdul Hakeem would not have a full range of motion in the eye and the prosthetic would simply stay in one spot, giving an appearance of what people refer to as “a glass eye.”

With a mirror in his hand, Abdul Hakeem said it seemed one eye was larger than the other. His lower lid, damaged by the large brown scar engulfing much of the left side of his face, was showing much of the new eye, creating the perception that it was larger.

Mr. Tillman agreed, and went back to work crafting a smaller prosthetic lens. As they put the brown lens back and Abdul Hakeem sat in his chair blinking his brown eyes, he turned and said, “Thank you.”

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