You Are My Sunshine

Bionic eye helps husband see wife for first time in 20 years

By Mayo Clinic Staff

"When I kiss her, I still close my eyes," Allen Zderad says with a smile, causing his wife, Carmen, to bounce with laughter over a joke she's probably heard hundreds of times.

They are in a doctor's office for another consultation to treat Allen's retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that has made Allen legally blind all his life.

"It's an inherited disease that involves the degeneration of a cell type in the retina called photoreceptors, which are sort of like the pixels in our eyes," says Raymond Iezzi Jr., M.D., who has selected Allen to be the first patient to receive a radical new treatment — a bionic eye.

The "eye" is made up of a camera, mounted on glasses, sending images to a computer. The computer analyzes and processes the images before sending them to a transmitter, which then beams visual information into a device implanted around Allen's eye and wired into his retinal nerve through 60 electrodes. The implant interprets that information and sends series of impulses to the retina, which the brain interprets as vision.

A few weeks after Allen has the surgery placing the implant, he sits in a room filled with his children and grandchildren. Dr. Iezzi asks Allen how he's doing.

"I'm on pins and needles," Allen says, then adds with a laugh, "or electrodes I should say."

Carmen sits directly across from Allen, the two facing each other, as Allen lets out a loud breath. Then Dr. Iezzi turns the glasses on. At first Allen isn't sure what to make of the new visual information. It's black and white, unfocused and very pixelated. Then Carmen moves and someone asks, "What do you see?"

Allen quickly holds up his hands and says in classic Midwestern understatement, "Yeah." Then he grabs Carmen and pulls her close. Tears mix with laughter as Allen sees his wife for the first time in two decades. Allen falls back to his chair, and the two hold both hands, just looking at each other.

A few minutes later, Allen and Carmen are standing alongside Dr. Iezzi as Allen describes what he sees.

"It's going to take interpretation of the shape of the light that's flashing because it's a pulsing light, not like regular vision where it's constant. It's a flash, and I've got to be able to interpret the changes in that shape."

Dr. Iezzi says that's exactly right, and Allen punches his right hand with his left in excitement. He turns to Dr. Iezzi and quickly grabs his hand — "I picked you out!" Dr. Iezzi is only the second person Allen has seen after years of darkness. Carmen gives him a long, laughing, weeping hug.

"This is crude, but it is significant," Allen says, while grasping Dr. Iezzi's hand. "It'll work."

Dr. Iezzi leads Allen and Carmen around the clinic, letting Allen get used to the new visual information. He brings Allen to a sun-filled window.

"You've just seen your first sunshine," Dr. Iezzi says.

"No," Allen says and nods toward Carmen. "That was her."

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