A 71-year-old woman blinded by an inherited disease recently thrilled University of Rochester doctors by reaching out and grabbing her ophthalmologist’s hand after receiving a “bionic eye.” The device allows her to distinguish light and motion, which she hasn’t been able to do in decades.
“I saw his hand – I couldn’t miss that,” said Khaleda Rahman, a Syracuse-area resident who once competed in the Olympics.
She is the first person in New York to receive the FDA-approved Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. There are fewer than 100 people in the U.S. that have the device, designed for people who have lost their vision as a result of retinitis pigmentosa.
“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,” said Mina Chung, M.D. of the Flaum Eye Institute. She worked with retina specialist Ajay Kuriyan, M.D., and anesthesiologist Anil Pisharoty, M.D., to implant the device Aug. 29 and then the ophthalmologists activated it Sept. 24.
“When she reached out and grabbed Dr. Kuriyan’s hand and they kind of held hands together. That was pretty exciting,” Chung said. “I think it’s going to be an amazing advance for her.”
Retinitis pigmentosa is a rare, hereditary disease that causes progressive degeneration of the light-sensitive cells of the retina, leading to blindness. It affects about 1.2 million people worldwide and there is no treatment.
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.
“This is definitely a game changer for patients who are close to blind or completely blind,” said Kuriyan. “When you have this low level of vision, it can lead to a lot of isolation because they have difficulty getting around.”
Following activation of the system, patients undergo months of vision training to maximize their ability to interpret the signals and what they are seeing.
Kuriyan and Chung knew Rahman would be the ideal first patient to receive the implantable device because of her determination and “can-do, positive attitude.”
“This isn’t something that automatically works because we turned it on. It takes a lot of effort on the part of the patient to maximize its use,” Kuriyan said. “Throughout her care, Mrs. Rahman has been diligent and dedicated, which is serving her well in training.”
Born in East Pakistan, which is now Bangladesh, she was one of eight children and knows the importance of hard work, regardless of how well she can see. Several siblings and relatives lost their sight to retinitis pigmentosa. When she was just 3 years old, it was clear that she would have the same fate. Her nanny tried to give her an orange, but Rahman didn’t reach for it, because she couldn’t see it.
Without a cure, she forged ahead, attending school and playing sports, excelling at track and field and badminton.
“By the time I was 18, I could barely see the shuttlecock in the air,” Rahman recalled. “I used to bump into things, but I kept going on with my life and learned to work around it.”
She pursued sociology and was on the track team and competed in track and field at University of Dhaka in Bangladesh. She was also a member of the Pakistan Olympic track and field team in the 1960s.
Rahman and her husband Bazlur came to the United States in 1970 and raised a son. She continued taking classes at Syracuse University, even as her vision diminished and she relied on visual aids and Braille more and more.
“I do not let this stop me from doing what needs to be done,” she said. “I still cook our favorite foods and I have a fast hand for knitting. I have a really good memory and have learned some tricks to get through my days.”