Eye Care

The Ability to Blink: How Oculoplastics Saved a Burn Victim’s Eyelids

Originally published January 20, 2020

Last updated April 30, 2024

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Front desk at a USC Roski Eye Institute location

When Joe Cruz had a car accident in Northern California, burn marks left his face so devastated that he lost the ability to blink. He was in constant pain, frequently needed to apply ointment to his eyes, and could only sleep by rolling his eyeballs into the back of his head.

When he consulted with an ophthalmologist in Northern California, the eye doctor recommended eyelid repair surgery. However, because Joe was using Medi-Cal insurance, the doctor would not accept him as a patient.

Joe’s search for an ophthalmologist who could repair his eyelids led him all the way to Los Angeles, where he discovered Dr. Sandy Zhang-Nunes, the Director of Oculo-Facial Plastics Services at the USC Roski Eye Institute.

“When I first met Joe, he couldn’t blink or protect his eyes,” Dr. Zhang-Nunes recalls. “Without immediate treatment, he could have lost his eyes.”

Dr. Zhang-Nunes repaired Joe’s eyelids over the course of two surgeries; one for each eye. In both procedures, she took full thickness skin grafts to surgically reconstruct Joe’s eyelids. “Because of the burns, I couldn’t take skin from the areas I typically use, such as the other eyelid or behind the ear. The area inside his upper arm was the best skin to match with his eyelids.”

Since skin naturally retracts as it heals, Dr. Zhang-Nunes needed to acquire enough extra skin tissue to allow Joe to shut his eyes completely once healed. “We needed to forecast exactly how long the eyelids would be once they healed, to ensure Joe could close his eyes and blink.”

After waking up from the surgeries, Joe’s eyelids were sutured shut for three weeks, which is why only one side was done at a time. As the surgical area healed, the stitches slowly dissolved, allowing Joe’s eyelids to reopen.

“My vision and eyesight are now back to normal,” Joe said, several months following the procedures. “Though I am very cautious about rubbing or touching them.” Joe voiced his gratitude to Dr. Zhang-Nunes for accepting him despite his insurance. “She is probably one of the best doctors in California. I am blessed to have her in my life.”

“I appreciated his positive outlook,” said Dr. Zhang-Nunes. “He didn’t give up and we weren’t going to give up on him. We’ve done our best to help Mr. Cruz see better, look better, and feel better. That’s my motto.”

by Eric Weintraub

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