Jackson woman helps people get back to normal life with her prosthetic devices

Posted Sept. 30, 2013, at 6:56 a.m.
Last modified Sept. 30, 2013, at 3:57 p.m.

JACKSON, Maine — Some artists want their work to stand out, receive attention, appreciation and maybe even accolades.

But ocularist and anaplastologist Ottie Thomas-Smith takes the opposite approach, trying to have her work blend in and be practically unnoticed by those who see it. Since 1984, she has been making prosthetic eyes, ears, noses and other facial parts in her Boston Ocular Prosthetics workshop on Moosehead Trail Road in Jackson. It’s not what the former sculpting student at the Rhode Island Institute of Design expected she would do with her life, but it’s what she loves.

“I like that nobody knows,” Thomas-Smith, 60, said last week at her office and workshop. “I wrote down in my high school yearbook that I wanted to be the greatest unknown artist.”

And that’s just what she and apprentice Kaylee Dombrowski attempt, as they painstakingly paint eyes and sculpt ears for patients who come from all over the United States and far away as Venezuela and Italy. People who have survived certain troubles, including burns, explosions, dog bites or cancer, come to be fitted for a prosthetic device when they are emotionally and physically ready.

“People come in and say, ‘You don’t want me to take off my patch. You’ve never seen anything like this before,’” Thomas-Smith said.

“I certainly know vastly more people with one eye than two. I do!” she said. “I think they start to feel more comfortable.”

She enjoys making people feel as comfortable as possible with their new prosthetic devices and letting them know they’re not alone.

Just last year, she made 61 new eyes, 12 new orbitals — a combined ear and eye, nine new ears, one new nose and four new hemi-facials, or half-faces.

“They’re around everywhere,” Thomas-Smith said. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people with prostheses in Maine. They’re astonishing. If they’re made well, it shouldn’t be obvious.”

The devices crafted with care are made in a workshop that looks more like a homey kitchen than a medical office. Last week, a freshly-painted acrylic eye cured in a toaster oven while Dombroski worked on more devices in the light-filled space. When patients come in, the women — both with backgrounds in sculpting — provide an initial interview, discuss the process, take an impression and do a fitting. Then, they get to work.

They try to make the prosthetic device look as realistic as possible, using a wide spectrum of colors to get the eyes painted just right.

“You still get to paint and make little things, just like I did when I was four years old,” Thomas-Smith said.

The industry itself has a small enough amount of practitioners that she often can recognize who made other facial prosthetics when she sees people wearing them. There are fewer than 200 members of the American Society of Ocularists.

Thomas-Smith first got started making the devices in the early 1970s, when she met a man with an artificial arm and they began a friendly conversation.

“It looked pretty real, but I could tell it wasn’t real,” she recalled. “He suggested I go down to see the clinic.”

Forty years later, she’s still at it. Thomas-Smith said that she tells her patients that if she doesn’t hear from them after they’ve received their prosthetic, she’ll presume they’re satisfied.

“You’re making something so people can just go and have their normal life. They just go about their business,” she said. “I’m happy that they’re just going back to normal.”

She told a story of a man who wore an eyepatch for years and was so thrilled when he received his prosthetic eye, he threw a celebration for his friends and did not tell them why.

“Nobody noticed,” Thomas-Smith said. “After 20 minutes, someone finally said, ‘Oh, you’re not wearing your patch. How come?’ It’s interesting how it’s not a big deal.”

She said that the work can be emotionally wrenching at times, especially when she is fitting terrified children or sees some of the human aftermath of devastating fires.

“Sometimes it gets to you,” she said. “But it’s lovely. It really is a fabulous thing to do.”