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Learning How To See: Bionic Eye Update

Eric Mennel

A month ago Larry Hester became the first person in North Carolina to receive a bionic eye.  Blind since the age of 30, Hester, who has been treated at the Duke Eye Center, is now learning how to see again.  And it isn't that easy.

The device that Hester is wearing is not just as simple as flipping on a switch.  He is now learning how to differentiate shapes and colors and going through physical therapy sessions which are rather reminiscent of someone who has just received a new knee, not eye.

Larry and his wife Jerry had been waiting and preparing for months for the device, which operates a tiny camera implanted in Larry's eye, to be turned on.  Finally the day came.  The Hester's met Dr. Paul Hahn, who implanted the device, at the Duke Eye Center.

"So he counted down three, two, one," said Larry Hester.  "Oh boy.  When he stimulated it,  it was just a second or two, and light started flashing. And that is what we were all about.  Trying to get lights flashing. Oh, it was just fantastic."

A Team Effort

Jerry Hester was by her husband's side as the device was turned on for the first time.  As she has been for most of the past 30 years that Larry has been blind.

"You know, after so many years in the dark, even just a little glimmer of light is a wonderful thing," said Jerry. "I was exceedingly happy." 

But Jerry Hester's role may now be changing a bit.  For the past thirty years Jerry says she has been operating almost as Larry's seeing eye dog.

"It has been a very long journey," she said. "It has been an adjustment.  We were 20 when we get married, and it is like 'I didn't sign up for this, this is not how I thought it was going to be.'   But you can decide, 'I am not going to do this,' and we decided that we were going to work at it together." 

Jerry says they rarely even use the word "blind" in their household.

"It was just not a word that we used."   

The trick, Jerry says, is that she can't let anyone hold her hand if she is mad at them.  Which meant that she and Larry would either resolve their fights quickly or he would be left behind. But she says, more than anything, "It has been my pleasure and honor to be by his side."

Practice Makes Perfect

Larry has been practicing with his device at home, but he says the one thing that he wanted to see more than anything else was Jerry's face.

"That is really what I wanted to do because it is awkward when you don't know exactly where you are," Larry said. "I don't want to reach out and punch her in the eye.  So that is very simple, but that meant a lot to me.  Just to be able to reach out and gently put my hand on her cheek. That's fantastic."

The Hester's knew that there would be an extended rehab period after the eye was turned on, but the amount of work it has required has been a real surprise.  Larry travels to the Duke Eye Center once a week for therapy sessions.  The sessions have turned out to be incredibly difficult.  Unlike a fully seeing individual, Larry can't close his eyes when he is tired.  The bionic eye device means that the only way he can stop seeing is if the device is turned off.

While there is still a long way to go, Larry says things have already changed dramatically.  He says sitting on the porch and looking at the light coming between the railing on the porch, or driving down the road and looking down for the first time and seeing the shape of his hands, has already been enough. 

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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