The NHS does an outstanding job making artificial eyes for patients who need them. But, as Laura Donnelly discovered, There is a lot more to the service than that

Every week Britain's nationwide artificial eye service makes about a dozen eyes. It is slow and painstaking work. In its laboratory, based in the Fylde, 17 ocular technicians sit at desks, painting with artists' oil paints, meticulously recreating the characteristics of the patient's natural eye.

The specially moulded shape is stained, veined with red embroidery thread and completed with an iris, all by hand. Finally, the artificial eye is coated in clear acrylic, cured in a small oven, polished and sent back to one of 17 centres and 54 clinics in hospitals across the country to be fitted by orbital prosthetists.

The service, managed by Blackpool, Wyre and Fylde Community Health Services trust, works to make as perfect a match as possible for customer prescriptions provided by a prosthetist. The service sees 28,000 patients each year.

For babies born without an eye, or with a shrunken socket, for those who lose their eyes in accidents, fights or suffer from longterm eye disease or cancer, the work carried out by the NHS artificial eye service is invaluable.

Director Austin Grayer says: 'Our patients do not just come to us once.

They come to us for the rest of their lives. That means we have to build on relationships of trust and respect, and give the best service we can. Losing an eye is very distressing for anyone. Staff ensure our product is a work of art, but that is not enough. We need to provide high-quality care as well. '

When one young patient, Sarah Boyen, was just a few months old, she lost both her eyes because of retino blastoma, a cancer of the retina which predominantly affects children. For six months, every time orbital prosthetist Paul Charlesworth fitted her with artificial eyes she became very upset.

Then he hit on the idea of adapting one of her dolls to act as a model. For six months he worked at making flexible sockets and lids out of silicone for Sarah's doll, Meg. Sarah identified with her immediately - once Mr Charlesworth had 'fitted' Meg's eyes, Sarah was ready to take her turn.

The idea was picked up by Paula Arnold, an ocular technician. She developed a prototype cuddly toy - Dino the Dinosaur - with one removable eye. Now there is at least one Dino at each clinic throughout the country.