What it’s like to see through a bionic eye

Roger Pontz and his wife Terry discuss his bionic eye
Roger Pontz and his wife Terry discuss his bionic eye

In his hometown of Reed City, Mich., Roger Pontz is a dishwasher in a bowling alley bar, but to the medical world he’s a pioneer in a new frontier of medicine.

Pontz, 55, is one of the first commercial recipients of the Argus II bionic eye made by Calf.-based medical device maker Second Sight Medical Products, Inc. The device, which partially restores sight to people who have lost their vision from retinitis pigmentosa, is the first commercially available treatment for blindness approved by the FDA..

Pontz, who had his surgery in January, was in Boston last week as part of a small media tour for Second Sight as it touts the benefits of the Argus II device. The former auto factory worker from a town of 2,500 tucked away in the central part of the state, completely lost his vision ten years ago after a slow deterioration that started when he was a teenager.

“Before I had the surgery, I would have to put my hands out in front of me when I walked around my house, and I’d run into walls and get frustrated. I no longer have to do that,” Pontz told MassDevice.com in his midwestern twang.

When asked what it’s like to get some of his vision back, Pontz replied simply, “It’s pretty awesome.”

The Argus II system is comprised of two components, an eyeglass-mounted camera and an electrical stimulator, which are implanted in the eye through a five hour outpatient surgical procedure. The device converts images captured by the camera into a series of electrical pulses that are then transmitted wirelessly to electrodes in the retina, simulating vision. Although images don’t appear in color or very clear, the technology is a major breakthrough.

For patients like Pontz, the difference between seeing nothing and being able to distinguish shapes and images is a life changer.

“It’s very exciting,” he said. “The first time they turned it on I thought I was just dreaming. Then they shut it off and turned it back on again and I just blurted out, ‘there’s a flash on there!’ Nobody said anything so I said to the doctors ‘There was a flash on there wasn’t there?’ And they were like ‘Yup there was’.”

His wife Terry said the small improvements make a huge quality of life improvement for Roger.

“Now he can see where his plate of food is on the table.” she said. “The other day he could see my spoon when I was eating my oatmeal. I never thought I’d have to say this to him but I said ‘Quit staring at me while I’m eating.’ And then he poked my oatmeal with his finger.”

Pontz vision continues to improve every day as his brain gets used to processing the images that the camera is picking up. It’s a long and arduous process but early recipients of the Argus II have even gone on to play basketball with their grandchildren, which is a goal for Pontz who has two grandkids of his own.

“I told (my wife) for at least fifteen years that I didn’t know when, where, or how, but I will see something again,” he said. “You gotta believe in yourself.”

Click here to read more about the twenty year journey to bring the bionic eye to market on MassDevice.

Brian Johnson is the founder of MassDevice.com, an independent Boston-based online publication that provides news and information for the medical device industry and the companies that drive it.
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