Miracles are not strangers to the Duke University Eye Center, perhaps the best such place in the world. Every day, patients have vision improved or partially restored with surgeries that would have been thought impossible a few short years ago. On any typical morning, the eye center is full of people checking in for operations or having their patches removed for follow-up checks.
And so it's appropriate that the development of the "bionic eye" is happening in Durham. The technical name is retinal prosthesis system, wherein a tiny video camera is mounted in a set of dark glasses and the camera picks up images, sending them down a wire to a computer device worn on a belt. The computer changes the images into electronic signals that then go back up the wire and transmit, wirelessly, into an implant in the eye. The implant sends pulses of electricity to the brain, via the optic nerve.
Duke doctors stress, emphatically, that the bionic eye doesn't restore conventional vision. The images seen are flashes of light, and patients can learn "a new language" of vision, as one surgeon put it. They'll associate the flashes of light with what's going on around them.
For Larry Hester, who lost his vision to the degenerative disease retinitis pigmentosa, the prospect of restoring something is worth the implant procedure. Following surgery, the Raleigh man is awaiting the "turning on" of the eye.
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The best news about this miraculous development is that it might be the start of further developments that could one day produce more vision for patients such as Hester. Science is like that, after all, stair steps that gradually lead to wondrous things.
At Duke Eye Center, remarkable surgeries and transplants are done regularly for diseases that only a few years ago would have taken sight or diminished it. Stents now are implanted to relieve the pressure of glaucoma. Corneas are transplanted. Many ophthalmologists tell patients worried about eye disease, "There's always Duke."
Duke doctors have helped Hester, who is 66, be realistic. "I don't have great expectations," he said. "But some little something is better than nothing at all."
But hope can lift expectations, and why not? That means for Hester: He has four granddaughters, ages 7 to 16, he has never seen. "It will be nice to sit with a granddaughter," he said, "and sit there watching fireworks with her and actually see the light from the fireworks. And maybe, even if it's just a little, see her."
There's no wonder, hearing his story, why Duke doctors and others continue to labor away in research, trying to make the dreams of Larry Hester and others come true.