Editor's note: This tour of small businesses across the country highlights the imagination, diversity, and resilience of American enterprise.

Christie Erickson and Todd Cranmore are like master forgers. Their business depends on copying unique masterpieces with such fidelity that the original and the replica are indistinguishable.

Only this mother and son are not reproducing paintings. They are reproducing human eyes.

People come to Erickson Labs Northwest to be made whole. Every year, between 200 and 300 new patients--hopeful and doubtful in equal measure--enter the modest building on a leafy street in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, Washington. When they arrive they wear dark glasses, eye patches, or strips of tape over their sockets. When they leave they look like everyone else. They look like themselves.

The Ericksons are ocularists. For 35 years, they have been replacing ruined or missing eyes with artificial ones that they painstakingly paint and web with veins made from silk. The goal is to perfectly match the patient's healthy eye, so that no one knows the difference. Their patients still can't see. But they no longer care that others see them.

Almost everyone brings a relative or friend to the big reveal, the moment when the new eye debuts beside its twin. "They will jump up in the patient's face and say, 'I can't tell! It looks like you! It's beautiful!' " says Erickson, who came to this occupation through personal tragedy, and so is boundlessly empathic. "That's when the prosthesis--which is a piece of plastic that we've created--is no longer ours. That eye is going forward as a part of them."

Every one of Erickson's patients has been through something awful. Disease is the most common culprit: increasingly diabetes, but also glaucoma, cataracts, and infection. The largest number--40 percent--lose their eyes to cancer. The Pacific Northwest has a large Scandinavian population, and their light eyes are vulnerable to melanoma. Retinoblastoma is a cancer that affects young children. It accounts for many of the toddlers in the waiting room.

Then there are accidents "and those are all over the place," says Cranmore. "Industrial accidents. Car accidents. Gunshot wounds. Fights. Fireworks. Fishhooks. Wine bottles. Wine corks. That's a big one, actually."

"You take a bungee cord off your bicycle or motorcycle and it hits you in the eye," says Erickson. "I hate bungee cords."

Erickson and Cranmore craft each new eye by hand, starting with a mold of the eye socket, and then painting the iris while the patient models his or her good eye in front of them. "That's when I tease them--we've got to be sure to get that twinkle in there," says Erickson.

The process takes place over four visits and costs between $3,500 and $4,500, typically covered by insurance. Erickson Labs Northwest has about 3,000 patients who come back every six months to a year so the ocularists can polish the eyes and adjust them. Every five years patients get new eyes built from scratch.

Marelene Christian has been fitted for three artificial eyes since she first visited Erickson Labs Northwest in 2003. Born without a left eye, she made do for decades with one that was noticeably artificial. The company's craftsmanship, she says, far exceeds anything else she has encountered. "It's a weird thing to say," says Christian, "but I can see myself in that eye."

Almost as important, Erickson and Cranmore "make you feel comfortable," says Christian. "They make you feel loved. They make you feel blessed."

An accident, and what came after.

In 1976, Christie Cranmore was a stay-at-home mom living in rural Washington, whose sole resume entry was soda jerk at the local Rexall. She'd had three babies in three years. The youngest was just 2 weeks old on the day that Tim, age 3, sat on the ground to watch his dad fix a backhoe.

"They were cutting the bolt off with a great big old pair of bolt cutters," says Christie, who tells this bit after a long pause. "The bolt flew off and hit him right in the eye."

The rest of that day and into the evening, the family raced through a nightmare. First to the nearest emergency room. Then down to Seattle for emergency surgery to try to save the eye. "We were hoping and praying that he would be able to have sight," says Christie. "But that is not what occurred."

A few surgeries later Tim's sight was no better, and the eye began to atrophy. "Tim was real shy, and he was entering kindergarten," says Christie. "And of course I was all worried that the kids were going to razz him." Around that time she heard about "scleral shells," thin prosthetics worn, contact lens-like, over shriveled or disfigured eyes. The Cranmores consulted an ocularist in Seattle, and he fashioned a shell for Tim that was more realistic than his parents imagined possible.

Tragedy can erode a marriage, and that happened to the Cranmores. Eventually Christie divorced Tim and Todd's father. In 1980, she married Gerald Erickson, the ocularist who had made Tim's scleral shell.

The next year, Erickson started helping out at her new husband's business, Erickson Laboratories. An artistic spirit, she was drawn to the work of painting and sculpting. Washington's ocularist apprenticeship program requires 10,000 hours of training, which typically takes five years. Erickson, who was also working and raising children, took eight years to complete her certifications.

Christie and Gerald Erickson worked side by side until 1996, when they divorced. Gerald retained sole ownership of the original Erickson Laboratories, in downtown Seattle. Christie opened Erickson Labs Northwest, in Kirkland.

At the time, Cranmore was a junior studying biochemistry at the University of Washington. He decided to throw his mother a surprise party to celebrate her new business. At the party, friends marveled when they saw the eyes and learned how they were made. "They were looking at me and saying, 'Why aren't you considering going into this?' " Cranmore says. He apprenticed under his mother and now co-owns the business with her. They have eight employees.

Polishing the windows to the soul.

The first artificial eyes were made of gold. Starting in the 16th century, they were made of glass. When World War II produced a shortage of glass and a surplus of injured soldiers, the industry switched to acrylic plastic.

Seventy-five years later, "everybody still thinks they are glass eyes, and everybody thinks they are round," says Erickson. "Everybody thinks all we do is play marbles back here in the lab."

The ocularists take impressions by pressing silicone into a patient's eye socket--much the way orthodontists take impressions of teeth. From that, they make a mold and fill it with medical-grade acrylic. They then take the resulting prosthesis, polish it, and fit it back into the patient's socket for adjustments: for example, adding a little more acrylic if the lid seems too low.

Next comes the painting. Erickson or Cranmore sits in a room that is fitted with color-correcting light bulbs to ensure an exact match with the healthy eye. With the patient facing them, they use super-fine paintbrushes to layer paint onto a tiny acrylic circle called an iris button. Starting with dark gray, the ocularists stack the colors--they can choose from roughly 25 earth tones--until they achieve a perfect match. In the end, they may have 100 or more layers of pigment. The process takes about 90 minutes.

All the while, "we are putting in details, we are putting in patterns," says Erickson. "If you look into a person's eye you will see all these little hills and valleys. We look at you like nobody looks at you."

To simulate the appearance of veins they separate silk thread into three plies with a razor blade and lay those down in a pattern identical to that in the healthy eye. Finally they cover the whole thing with a layer of clear acrylic, which acts like a cornea.

Joy and SpongeBob.

Patients replacing both eyes--usually lost to disease--can choose their colors. Occasionally someone will ask for something unusual such as wolf's or cat's eyes, or even a pair of smiley faces. "As much fun as that would be, it compromises our mission," says Cranmore, who will gently redirect the patient to a more subdued option. "Humor can be used to mask pain. We are here to help put people back together."

Patients wax more whimsical when choosing the tiny images painted at the top of their eyes so they know which side is up. (The lid covers the picture when the eye is inserted.) Those images run the gamut from flowers, sports logos, and military insignia to birthdates, phone numbers, and Scripture. One boy got SpongeBob SquarePants when he lost his eye at age 2. Five years later, when he needed it replaced, his grandmother, who had also lost an eye, joined him. "The second time he had [SpongeBob's best friend] Patrick," says Erickson. "His grandmother got Squidward Tentacles."

Erickson and Cranmore never grow tired of that moment when a sighted patient confronts her new self in the mirror. "They put away their sunglasses and say, 'I'm going to show this off,' " says Cranmore. "Many patients who haven't worn makeup for years will bring it with them" and put it on. "They say, 'I am not trying to hide anymore. This is me.' "

Erickson is especially gratified to see joy restored to children. Today her son Tim works in the finance department at Microsoft; Erickson says he is still shy about his eye. She shares her personal experience with parents, offering hope through example. As parents admire their children's new faces, "we all cry," says Erickson. "We all hug."

 

 

 

 

Published on: May 9, 2016