eyes for all


- Words Lisa Marie Corso

Friendship origin stories are just as important as any meet cute, and for Francesca Gelai and Nelly James it was love at first sight. Literally. The pair met while working as dispensing opticians at a Melbourne optometris­t. Soon, they began hanging out outside of rostered hours, but it wasn’t a series of brunches that launched their segue into true friendship – rather, it was starting their side project, Eyes For All.

“We always knew we wanted to work on a special project together that helped others, and ocularistr­y was the perfect hybrid of our love for eyes, craft and people,” Nelly says. The decision to become ocularists – folks who make and fit prosthetic eyes – came after watching the documentar­y Saving Face, which follows the rehabilita­tion process of three acid burn survivors in Pakistan. “We were drawn to the stories of these incredible women, and just knew it was a vocation we wanted to pursue,” Nelly says. There’s no formal training to become an ocularist – it’s typically a family trade, passed down from generation to generation. So, Nelly and Francesca found their own way in. “We basically had to find an ocularist who would let us hang out with them and soak up their wisdom and techniques,” Nelly says. They landed an apprentice­ship with artificial eye specialist John Pacey-lowrie, undergoing four months of hands-on training in the UK, followed by further training in Greece and New Zealand. Armed with the know-how to craft prosthetic eyes that look deceptivel­y like the real thing, the pair’s next step was to take their knowledge to the people who needed it most. With their project Eyes for All, they “travel to developing countries and train local staff at public hospitals to make and dispense artificial eyes, so the practice can be sustainabl­e and carry on into the future,” Francesca says. While there, they also set the hospitals up with all the tools and machinery required for a fully functionin­g prosthesis lab.

“In many places, especially those with inadequate healthcare, social stigma and superstiti­on, people with disabiliti­es face extreme ostracism and shame,” Francesca says. Those who have lost their eyes are often deemed cursed by their communitie­s – by providing a prosthetic alternativ­e, Nelly and Francesca hope to empower their patients and return some autonomy to their lives. “Every single person we meet has a different story, and while it can be tough at times, we consider ourselves so incredibly lucky to be involved in each of their rehabilita­tion journeys.”

To date, all their work has been self-financed (with a little bit of crowdfundi­ng thrown in), spurred along by an impressive amount of ambition, drive and energy. No doubt, a lot of patience, too – there are more than 40 steps involved in the making of a single prosthetic eye. They describe the process as similar to making a set of false teeth, only with the added task of matching the acrylic eye to the patient’s existing one. To do this, they get a little bit crafty by staining the sclera – aka the white outer layer of the eyeball – hand-painting the iris, and replicatin­g veins with delicate silk threads.

Showing no signs of slowing down, Nelly and Francesca’s next big project is setting up the first public hospital-based ocular prosthetic­s clinic in Lagos, Nigeria. “We’re really excited about this, as Lagos is the most populous city in Africa, and currently the only way to get a prosthetic eye is through expensive private clinics,” Nelly says. “By working with the public health system, prosthetic eyes will become more accessible and affordable for the people who need them most.”

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