By Jacob Young Maria Leonhauser
November 21, 1988 12:00 PM

In Denis Lee’s laboratory at the University of Michigan medical school, there is a copy of the Vincent van Gogh self-portrait painted after the artist had cut off his ear. There are also plaster casts of noses, eyes, fingers, feet and ears, which Lee uses to sculpt cosmetic prosthetic devices—realistic silicone replacements for body parts that his patients have lost. “We’re all bilaterally symmetrical,” says Lee. “You don’t feel right if apart of you is missing.”

Lee, who was trained as a medical illustrator, supplies what’s missing, and his devices are so lifelike that it is almost impossible to tell them from the real thing. Although no technician can duplicate Mother Nature—a synthetic eye won’t see, a fake finger can’t bend—Lee’s patients understand that. What counts is that he makes them look whole again.

There are about 200 specialists in cosmetic prosthetics in the U.S.; Lee’s practice is probably the largest and most varied. The 250 patients he sees each year include burn victims, women scarred by breast cancer and children with birth defects or injuries that affect their appearance. It is the youngsters who are closest to his heart. “Each year thousands of children are disfigured,” he says, “and there is almost no help for them. These kids have been through so much, yet they are so full of life, so spirited.” A onetime premed student, Lee now practices what might be described as a restorative art. “Any of us can get disfigured at any time,” he says. “Many doctors, particularly where cancer is concerned, have the idea that their patients are lucky to be alive. Well, they are. But why should they also be left disfigured?”

To construct a prosthesis, Lee begins by taking an impression of one of his patient’s “good” body parts, such as a whole ear or an undamaged hand. (To make a nose, he works from a patient’s old photos.) In a lab that looks more like a Hollywood special-effects department than a medical facility, he then sculpts the missing feature in clay and makes a mold. The final product, made from flesh like silicone, is hand-painted to match the patient’s skin tone. The devices provide an alternative when traditional reconstructive surgery is impossible or is not recommended for medical reasons such as age. Patients put their prostheses on in the morning, using high-tech adhesives, and remove them at night. Cost for an ear: about $1,300; for an eye, $2,000; for a foot, $2,000.

One of Lee’s patients was NBC contributing correspondent Betty Rollin, author of First, You Cry, who came to him for an artificial breast after her first mastectomy in 1975. But children make up more than one-third of his practice. “Over the last 18 years I’ve seen lots of kids,” says Lee, who eventually hopes to open a special treatment center for children. “They lose a foot to a lawn mower or an eye to cancer. If not treated correctly, it can cause a lot of psychological problems.” Michelle Griggs, a bouncy, blond 6-year-old who has no left ear, got the Lee treatment this summer. Michelle doesn’t get much teasing anymore, and if kids do bother her, she has an answer ready. “She simply explains that she was born without an ear and went to a doctor who made one for her,” reports her mother, Betsy. “It seems to satisfy them.”

Lee, 49, whose father was a dentist and whose mother was a schoolteacher, showed an early flair for drawing. But his hometown of North Judson, Ind., was so tiny, he says, that “you were lucky if you could get a whole pack of Crayolas.” His father wanted him to become a doctor, but Lee strayed from that career path after he started drawing illustrations for zoology labs at Indiana University. “I loved it,” he recalls. “I still remember when I phoned my father and told him I wanted to illustrate medical books instead of being a doctor. There was dead silence. He was disappointed for a long time.”

Lee got his degree in zoology, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and went on to receive a master’s certificate in medical illustration at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Eventually he landed a job as a medical illustrator at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Then, in 1970, a University of Michigan plastic surgeon asked him to try making a prosthetic ear. Lee did, and from there, he says, “it kept snowballing.” Since then his skills and the available materials have improved dramatically. Today, Lee, who lives in Ann Arbor with his wife, Laurel, and their children, Hilary, 11, Grant, 16, and Garrick, 18, is director of medical sculpture at Michigan and holds professorships in the university’s art and medical schools.

While making rubber body parts is on the whole a serious business, there are occasional moments of comic relief. One elderly man lost his replacement eye in church and never found it. A client in Canada has five prosthetic ears, each tinted a slightly different shade to match his skin tone and mood on any given day. Then there’s the Vietnam vet who lost an ear in a jungle firefight: Since then, the man seems to have become a replacement junkie. “He goes into bars and when the guy next to him isn’t looking, he takes his ear off and drops it into the guy’s beer,” says Lee. “He gets into fights, and then he calls me for another ear.” Van Gogh should have been so lucky.

—Jacob Young, and Maria Leonhauser in Ann Arbor