Man sees wife after 10 years of blindness: How new tech provides hope

A Minnesota man can now see his wife after being blind for 10 years. How technological advancements are bridging the gap between human limitations and human potential.

Mayo Clinic
Allen Zderad sees his wife for the first time in 10 years with the help of computerized glasses.

After an eye disease left 68-year-old Allen Zderad blind for nearly a decade, a technological advancement enabled him to see his wife for the first time since losing his sight.

This is the latest evidence that advances in prosthetics, including in new realms such as blindness and deafness, can challenge perceptions of disability, revolutionize prosthetics research, and give new hope to current and future recipients.

Mr. Zderad was selected by ophthalmologist and researcher Raymond Iezzi Jr. of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., to receive the “Second Sight Argus II” retinal prosthesis system, becoming the first recipient in Minnesota and the 15th in this country. The procedure included the surgical implantation of 60 electrodes into Mr. Zderad’s retina, which will interact with an external computer pack and glasses that will send signals directly to his optic nerve.

Two weeks after the surgery, Zderad waited with his wife, children, and grandchildren to see whether or not the procedure was successful. Slowly, the room comes into focus.

“Yeah,” Zderad exclaimed, seeing his wife. At a loss for words, he embraces her as many in the room are brought to tears. “It’s crude, but it’s significant. It works,” he rejoiced, reported NBC affiliate KARE.

The FDA approved implantation of the retinal prosthesis system in January 2014. The technology took over 25 years and an estimated $300-$500 million to develop. Currently, the technology has been implanted in about 100 individuals. As artificial vision, it is not yet to the level of natural eyesight. Zderad can make out forms and shapes, but cannot see the details of people’s faces. However, he says this does not stop him from seeing Carmen, his wife of 45 years.

“It’s easy,” he told Mayo Clinic in a statement. “She’s the most beautiful one in the room.”

In April 2013, Grayson Clamp, a three-year old from North Carolina, became the first child in the U.S. to receive an auditory brainstem implant.  After his procedure, Grayson captured the hearts of millions after his video went viral. Over 4 million people watched the little boy’s reaction as he heard his father’s voice for the first time, and the procedure’s implications beg the question of how the technology will continue to change people’s lives.

Hugh Herr, head of the Center for Extreme Bionics at MIT Media Lab, creates bionic limbs that emulate the function of natural limbs. After the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, he and his team paired with ballroom dancer Adrianne Haslet-Davis, who lost her leg in the attack. During a TED Talk in Vancouver in 2014, Ms. Haslet-Davis was able to perform a ballroom dance for the first time after losing her leg, with the help of the bionic leg developed by Mr. Herr and his team.

Herr says that prosthetics can go beyond restoring basic movement or biological function; the field is developing in ways now that can restore expression, incorporating what is arguably a distinguishing characteristic of humanity. Prosthetic technology, he argues, should also enable such expression, be it through dancing, hearing music, or experiencing visual art. Advancing technology will also continue to bridge the gap between “human limitation and human potential.” Currently, prosthetics have yet to reach their fullest potential, but are slowly making headway and changing the way researchers approach emerging technologies.

“Every person should have the right to live life without disability if they so choose.... As a society we can achieve these human rights if we accept the proposition that humans are not disabled. A person can never be broken,” Herr said during a talk in Vancouver. “We the people need not accept our limitations, but can transcend disability through technological innovation.”

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