Larry Hester was 33 years old when doctors diagnosed him with retinitis pigmentosa, a disease where the eyes' light-sensitive retinas deteriorate. He became blind. But thanks to his high-tech retinal prosthesis from North Carolina's Duke Eye Center, the 66-year-old is seeing things in an entirely new way.
A video posted Oct. 7 captured the moment when Hester's eye surgeon, Dr. Paul Hahn, turned on the device's electronic stimulator for the first time since he implanted the sensor last month. Hester immediately flinched, literally taken aback by the sudden sight of light after three decades of darkness.
According to the Duke Medicine blog, Hester is the seventh person in the United States to receive the retinal prosthesis, which gives him the ability to differentiate between light and dark spots within its field of vision.
"It was incredible, it was bright, and it was significant," Hester says of the experience in the video. "And I, I just had to take a deep breath ... It was hard to articulate what I was feeling, but I wanted to share it with everybody I could grab at the time."
The device, often called a "bionic eye," works by capturing video via a camera mounted on special glasses and translating it into an electrical signal. The signal is then sent to undamaged cells in the retina wirelessly via the implanted electronic stimulator. Once received, the brain interprets the signal as contrasting bits of bright and dark.
"It's a fairly limited device, but it's an amazing leap forward," retinal expert Dr. Colin McCannel told NBC's "Today." "It’s not the vision you or I are used to. But for someone who has been in complete darkness it must be amazing to see again. I think it’s absolutely phenomenal."
The patterns produced by the "bionic eye" might be simple, but the technology's implications are extensive.
Hester hopes that next summer he might be able to see the light contrasts from the fireworks show on the Fourth of July, his wife, Jerry, told the Herald-Sun.
"We have prayed a lot about it, our friends and family have, and we have a wonderful support group of people that are cheering for him," she told the outlet.