Doctor uses tattoos to boost blind patients' confidence

Watch a surgeon tattoo this man's eyeball
Doctor uses tattoos to boost blind patients' confidence   

Tattoos placed on the eyeball are opening up new possibilities for some eye injury patients.

One such procedure, which adds natural-looking color to an eye after injury, was performed live at the New York City Tattoo Convention in June by Dr. Emil Chynn, a surgeon, owner and medical director at Park Avenue Lasek in Manhattan. The goal is to match the tattooed eye with the look of a normal eye, and as a result, boost a patient's self-confidence.

Other surgeons aiming for a similar outcome usually just inject dye into the cornea using a needle and syringe, according to Chynn. While that may improve an eye's appearance, the result could just look like a big blotch of brown or black, for example, he said.

"So it's a very delicate procedure, and we're using the most fine tattoo needle as possible," Dr. Chynn said of his approach in an interview with CNBC.

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Chynn uses a compact Swashdrive tattoo machine, which is customizable and the best fit for this specific procedure, according to Dr. Chynn's tattoo gear supplier, Unimax Supply Company.

Chynn said he decreased the rate at which the needle repeats injecting ink and he adjusted how far the needle travels in order to prevent perforating the cornea, the outer layer of the eyeball, which measures just about half a millimeter thick.

Using a modified tattoo machine, eye surgeon Emil Chynn adds color to a patient’s eye.
CNBC
Using a modified tattoo machine, eye surgeon Emil Chynn adds color to a patient’s eye.

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Winston Warner, the patient who underwent the procedure at the tattoo convention, previously had a corneal injury that left a white layer over his eye, Chynn explained.

Before an eye tattoo procedure, Chynn numbs the eye and applies an antibiotic, he said. Then the tattoo is applied to the superficial layer of the eye.

After the procedure, Chynn gives the patient a clear contact lens which would allow the eye to heal, he said.

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Chynn said he typically charges $2,300 for the procedure, and by his estimation, the potential market for it is in the tens of thousands in the United States.

"So the potential audience is vast because there's many people with ocular injuries that can benefit cosmetically from a tattoo to make them more emotionally confident and to be able to look people in the eye," he said.

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Health insurance companies may consider covering that fee on a case-by-case basis, but only if it's not considered purely cosmetic, Chynn said.

Chynn said the market for purely cosmetic tattoos is less certain. While other tattoo artists are tattooing people's eyes, Chynn said the procedure is safer when done by a surgeon.