5-year-old from Wisconsin Experiences Improved Vision, New Lease on Life

October 11, 2005

Until this summer, Jacob Herda of Two Rivers, Wisc., lived in a world of near total blindness, one in which he tried hard to navigate but which provided few opportunities for a normal childhood. A ground-breaking procedure has changed that, and 5-year-old Jacob, forever.

Jacob was born with Peter’s Anomaly, a rare congenital disease characterized by glaucoma and opaque corneas. During his short life he has had five corneal transplants – three in his left eye and two in his right – but unfortunately all were unsuccessful. As a result, Jacob has no sight in his left eye, and his right ended up post-surgeries with only light-perception vision.

In June, at their wits’ end, Jacob’s parents sought one last solution: the Dohlman keratoprosthesis, an artificial corneal implant that consists of a plastic front and back that is embedded around a donor cornea and sutured to the eye. They contacted corneal specialist James Aquavella, M.D., at the University of Rochester Eye Institute, who offered to look at Jacob’s right eye to see if it was a candidate for the keratoprosthesis surgery.

Within a few days Nicole and Robert Herda were in their car with Jacob, driving more than 13 hours through six states from their home in Two Rivers, Wisc., to the University of Rochester Eye Institute in upstate New York. Aquavella examined Jacob, determined the Dohlman implant could help him, and scheduled the surgery for July 11.

The day after the surgery, when Jacob’s eye was uncovered for the first time, his reaction was the stuff dreams are made of, according to his parents. This 5-year-old who had used three-word sentences, if he spoke at all, looked around and exclaimed “Dr. Aquavella, I see you!” He then commented on a green light in the room, then talked about his froggy backpack. And he hasn’t stopped since, his mother says.

“He had very little vocabulary, and now every day it’s new words,” Nicole says. “His vision teacher can’t believe he’s asking so many questions, huge questions.”

Every night there is bedtime reading, with Jacob pointing to the illustrations as his parents read picture books. He’s learning to play card games and a kids’ version of Yahtzee. He’s picking up his own toys and building with Legos, which he was getting good at when he was blind but is now constructing more complicated structures. And he’s playing on his parents’ computer.

His new sight seems to have impacted Jacob’s desire to succeed at everything he sees other kids doing. Jacob uses a walker, the result of a stroke, and he now happily wants to go places, to walk, to move, his mother says, despite the fact that he wobbles slightly. “He tells me, ‘I walk like a crazy driver.’ ”

“I got used to thinking he’d never do a lot of the things other children are capable of, but he’s really developed dramatically since his surgery,” she says. “It’s like getting a new kid.”

Aquavella also has seen a significant difference in the timid boy he met just a few months ago.

“Following this surgery, Jacob’s developmental capacities, which were once in question, would seem now to be unlimited,” Aquavella says. “He’s one incredible boy.”

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Karin Christensen
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