“Oh my goodness – do you see that?” It was the wave of a hand, but William Heidt was in tears. For the first time in more than 15 years, the Wyoming County man saw something, thanks to a “bionic eye” provided by UR Medicine’s Flaum Eye Institute.
His wife, Rebecca, stepped toward her husband of 50 years, and Heidt immediately recognized she was there. His family and doctors cheered.
“Every day I’ll become clearer and clearer to you,” she said, beaming with joy. The Heidts recently celebrated their golden wedding anniversary. And after all those years, you could say Heidt is seeing his wife in a whole new way.
He received the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, cutting-edge technology designed to restore some vision for people who suffer with retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary disease that causes progressive degeneration of the light-sensitive cells of the retina. It leads to blindness and affects 1.2 million people worldwide. There is no treatment or cure.
The Argus II device, made by Second Sight, works by converting images captured by a miniature video camera mounted on the patient’s glasses into a series of small electrical pulses, which are transmitted wirelessly to an array of electrodes implanted on the surface of the retina. These pulses are intended to stimulate the retina’s remaining cells, resulting in the perception of patterns of light in the brain. The patient then learns to interpret these visual patterns, thereby regaining some visual function.
The optoelectronic device restores vision by allowing people to see contrast, such as a doorway or light-colored dish on a table, in addition to motion. Following activation of the system, patients undergo months of vision training to maximize their ability to interpret the signals and what they are seeing.
“This device changes lives for patients who are nearly or completely blind,” Ajay Kuriyan, M.D., a retinal specialist, said. Flaum Eye Institute is the only location to offer the technology in Upstate New York. “When your vision is very low, it can lead to a lot of isolation because they have difficulty getting around.”
Ophthalmologists Mina Chung, M.D., and Kuriyan activated the “bionic eye” May 22, and Heidt raised his hand in front of his eyes. That’s when his wife and children let out a sigh of relief.
“It was really emotional and I was anxious,” said Heidt, 71, after ophthalmologists activated the implanted device. “It is wonderful to see something again.”
Heidt’s sight faded away in 2003 and he has deeply missed his wife’s gentle smile. Months ago he heard about the high-tech vision system, and jumped at the opportunity to have limited vision again, especially because he wanted to celebrate the golden anniversary by seeing her again.
“We dedicate our careers to restoring and improving vision and preventing vision loss. The ability to see someone who couldn’t see before, start to see again is very rewarding,” Chung said. She partnered with Kuriyan and anesthesiologist David Grimes, D.O., implanted the device April 24.
“Mr. Heidt demonstrated a ‘can do’ attitude from the moment I met him. He is dedicated to the post-surgery training to maximize his vision with the device,” Kuriyan said. “He set a goal of ‘seeing’ his wife, with the help of the device, before their anniversary, and we are thrilled to help make that goal a reality.”
The first signs of Heidt’s vision trouble were evident when he served in the Air Force and he couldn’t see after dark at the Texas base. He was diagnosed with night blindness, and ophthalmologists said it was a precursor to retinitis pigmentosa.
Little by little his vision eroded and while he worked as a bricklayer for many years, his sight was completely gone in 2003. Heidt and his wife, who worked as a nurse, have two grown daughters and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.