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North Carolina Man Receives 'Bionic Eye'

Larry Hester, at the WUNC studios, September 2014.
Eric Mennel

Larry Hester lost his sight at age 33. Last week, 66-year-old Hester had a computer chip inserted into his left eyeball which may help him gain some ability to better navigate his life.

The six-hour surgery – the first in North Carolina – was performed by Dr. Paul Hahn at the Duke Eye Center. 

When the device is turned on, Hester will wear a pair of glasses rigged with a camera. The glasses will be attached by wire to a computerized device that Hester will wear on his belt. 

The camera will take a picture and send the image to the computer.  The computer forwards the image to the device in the eye, which sends an electrical stimulus to the optic nerve, which transfers the information to the brain.

“So really the camera is taking the picture and I am seeing with my brain” rather than my eye, Hester said.

Hester was a young father half a lifetime ago when he realized his vision was fading.

"I began to have difficulty with dark and light adaptation and depth perception,” Hester said.

He went to the Duke Eye Center where a doctor told him he was suffering from retinitispigmentosa, or RP, a degeneration of the cells in the retina.  Hester was told that he would eventually go blind.

"Well, it was a horrifying thought, and when you receive that information and get that news, it is like 'Wow, I'm 33 years old. I have a wife, a son, a daughter, my ... business career is ahead of me,” said Hester. “It just makes an impact on you like, 'Where do you go from here?  What do you do?  How do you face this?'"

Eventually Hester had no sight. Hester says he decided to concentrate on what he had in his life and not what he was losing.

'I just resolved that everybody has a problem, and this just happens to be mine, and I was just going to make the best of it and move on.'

"I just resolved that everybody has a problem, and this just happens to be mine, and I was just going to make the best of it and move on." 

Then Hester's wife Jerry read about a new device designed for people with RP: the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. The device was approved by the FDA in 2013. Only six have been implanted successfully in patients in the U.S. Larry Hester inquired and found out that he would be a perfect candidate.

This new hardware means that Hester is now a registered wireless carrier.

"As a matter of fact, the FCC had to approve this signal. I have to carry a card saying that that is what is happening, if I go in an airport or something like that."

Larry Hester hasn't seen for 30 years but he says his visual memory is clear. 

Larry and Jerry Hester
Credit Eric Mennel
Larry and Jerry Hester

"What I really miss is being able to see my wife's big beautiful blue eyes," he said. "And being able to see my children and my grandchildren, that's what I truly miss. I have very vivid memories of what my wife looks like, and what true blue ocean water looks like, and what a vivid sunset, or a vivid sunrise is like.  I still remember those vividly."

In a couple of weeks, after his eye heals, Hester  will go back to Duke and they will switch the device on.  It is likely that Hester will initially see flashes of light.  Those flashes will have to be adjusted and calibrated. Hester will then attend therapy to understand how to use his bionic eye. Soon, though, there will be light and eventually it will help Larry walk through a door, or locate the curb on a sidewalk.

Jerry Hester notes that her husband has held on to the dream of sight for the past 30 years. 

"I think it is going to be cool when he can tell that one of the grandchildren are approaching," Jerry Hester said. "Rather than not knowing, and there are so many wonderful things about."

Phoebe Judge will join the Hester family at Duke Eye Center for an upcoming appointment, when Larry Hester's bionic eye gets turned on. We will update this story at that time.

Phoebe Judge is an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on a numerous national radio programs. She regularly conducts interviews and anchors WUNC's broadcast of Here & Now. Previously, Phoebe served as producer, reporter and guest host for the nationally distributed public radio program The Story. Earlier in her career, Phoebe reported from the gulf coast of Mississippi. She covered the BP oil spill and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio. Phoebe's work has won multiple Edward R. Murrow and Associated Press awards. Phoebe was born and raised in Chicago and is graduate of Bennington College and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
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