Reconstructing the Eye So Her Inner Beauty Shines Through

At age 19, Christine Nakato, from Uganda, suffered a disfiguring and traumatizing injury when she was attacked with battery acid. Her left eye was completely destroyed and the left side of her face and body severely burned. A local clinic performed skin grafts to protect her eye, which was little more than basic first aid, not the long-term sophisticated treatment needed to help her recover her health and appearance.

Her rescue lay with the Grossman Burn Foundation in West Hills which brought her to California for a complex series of treatments that ultimately involved two members of the PVF board. Their skill and compassion effectively changed her life, a combination of philanthropic generosity and the donated services of skilled physicians. Today, at 22, Christine is back home with her 3-year-old daughter and a new life.

This is her story.

In July 2015, at the Grossman Burn Center, ophthalmic plastic surgeon, Dr. Mark Baskin, performed eye socket reconstruction surgery. Knowing that she needed an artificial eye, he contacted Steve Young, an ocularist who specializes in creating lifelike ocular prostheses who is also a member of the PVF board. Christine’s journey back and forth between Southern and Northern California, was coordinated by Marcus Whithorne, Executive Director of the Grossman Burn Foundation, who accompanied her for the various procedures.

Steve Young “is a real master, and so people come from all over the world to see him,” Dr. Baskin said. “And being a great person as well, he also agreed to create Christine’s artificial eye for free.”

Because Christine was blind in her left eye, which was covered with skin, there was no space for an artificial eye. Dr. Baskin removed scar tissue and replaced it with a skin graft from the lining of Christine’s mouth; then Dr. Young created a customized “conformer,” a molded plastic shell that keeps the eyeball and eyelid separated after surgery while the eye heals.

About six weeks later, as Young was preparing to remove the conformer to make room for the artificial eye, he discovered that tissue had fused the conformer to her socket requiring a last minute surgery. The issue was resolved by a quick call to fellow board member Dr. Erich Horn, the Chief of Comprehensive Ophthalmology at California Pacific Medical Center who practices in an office only a block away. Arriving with a scalpel, some surgical scissors and topical anesthetic, Dr. Horn removed the conformer in just a few minutes. “Steve and I are both on CPMC’s faculty,” Dr. Horn explained, “and our physicians are both collaborative and collegial.
For a patient who had come such a long way for a remedy and a colleague who had requested a favor, he said, “I was happy to do this minor procedure at no charge.”

Explaining his work, Young said that he crafted the scleral shell that would fit like an oversized contact lens over Christine’s damaged eye and make her look like herself again. “I begin by studying the patient’s intact eye to replicate its appearance as closely as possible in every detail, from the pigments in the iris to the intricate pattern of the blood vessels,” he said. “Then I paint layers of color onto an acrylic disc, cover it with clear plastic to prevent it from getting scratched and polish it with a special buffer.”

“The happiest I’d seen Christine in months is when she saw her new eye for the first time,” Whithorne recalled. “She cried out of sheer joy. It was like she had gotten back a part of herself that she’d lost.”

He also marveled at the generosity of everyone who’d provided care for Christine at no cost. “This is the Grossman Burn Foundation’s first time coordinating with Steve Young and Dr. Horn,” he said, “but it certainly won’t be the last. This was something of a bridge-building exercise that will benefit the Grossman Burn Foundation, (www.grossmanburnfoundation.org) PVF and, most importantly, people suffering from eye burns and that can have catastrophic effects on their entire lives.”