Man's New Iris Implant Turns Black Eye Blue

Charlie Haverstick was 26 when a mishap during a friendly game of flag football changed not only his eye color, but his vision.

"I was running out to catch or intercept the ball," said Haverstick. "One of the receivers from the other team came toward me and hit me in the eye with the ball of his hand like a karate chop."

The blow broke the bone behind Haverstick's eye. He suffered a subdural hematoma, or bleeding in the brain. The injury also tore the muscle of the iris in his right eye.

Video: Surgery corrects mans iris color.
Iris implant restores man's eye color

But most surprising was that Haverstick, previously blue-eyed, emerged from the week-long hospital stay with one blue eye and one, his right, which had turned completely black.

"People think I have a brown eye and a blue eye," said Haverstick.

The injuries were more than cosmetic. Although he could still see, his permanently damaged iris could no longer act as a shutter, limiting the amount of light entering his right eye. He became extraordinarily sensitive to light.

In photographs, his dark eye appears a bright "Terminator-like" red because nothing blocks the light that reflected off the retina in the back of his eye.

"In natural daylight the size of the pupil might be two millimeters," said Dr. Kevin Miller, an ophthalmologist at UCLA's Jules Stein Eye Institute. "He has essentially no iris, so his functional pupil size is 12 millimeters or 12.5 millimeters, so light just comes pouring into the eye."

Living without an iris is not unheard of. About 1 in 50,000 to 100,000 newborns have a congenital defect that results in aniridia -- an absent or partial iris. An unknown number of others damage the iris through injury. Most treatments focus on limiting the light that comes into the eye, but don't consider the cosmetic aspect of the eye color.

Last month, Haverstick became only the 29th person in the United States to undergo a custom artificial iris implant that aims to address both concerns.

Haverstick, now 53, who lives in Inola, Okla., is a computer instructor at a private college and a coach for a swim team. He tries to limit his exposure to computer screens and wears sunglasses even on the cloudiest days. While attending a clinic on animal ophthalmology, Haverstick's veterinarian heard about a Los Angeles surgeon who was doing human iris transplants. Haverstick called and set up an appointment almost immediately.

Iris Implant Means More Natural Appearance After Injury

"Now I've got an opportunity to be able to go outside without having to shield myself, like a vampire," he said, "and to be able to walk around without worrying too much about getting the headaches at the end of the day."

Miller has performed 70 iris transplants, but none corrected the cosmetic appearance; they simply "appeared spooky." He is only the second surgeon in the United States to implant an artificial iris that is custom-made. Haverstick was his first patient to get an artificial iris that also restored his eye color.

The iris is created by HumanOptics AG, a company with headquarters in Erlangen, Germany. The first of this type of implant procedure was performed in November 2002 in Bonn, Germany. A surgeon in Cincinnati has implanted 28 of these devices. There are about 250 patients worldwide who have had the procedure.

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