Man gets bionic eye, sees wife for first time in decade

ROCHESTER, Minn. – A blind Forest Lake man's sight is restored after he became the first person in Minnesota, and 15th person in the country, to receive a bionic eye.

Allen Zderad, 68, hadn't seen his wife or grandchildren in more than a decade, until the new device was turned on at Mayo Clinic earlier this month.

"Yeah," Zderad exclaimed, as his wife of 45 years slowly came into focus.

He then could find no more words, embracing her.

"It's crude, but it's significant. It works," he rejoiced, through tears.

Zderad has retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative, genetic eye disease that slowly stole his sight over the course of his life. It progressively deteriorates the part of the retina that turns light into vision. He now uses a cane to walk, and can no longer read.

His wife, Carmen Zderad, is his sighted guide. Silver haired with a kind smile, she tries to remember the last time he's seen her face.

"Ten years?" she asks.

"Ten years, but I still kiss her with my eyes closed," laughed Zderad.

The grandfather of ten remembers the faces of his oldest grandchildren, but most of their faces he's never seen.

"I have a lot of fun with my grandkids and family. I think it would be good to recognize when they come in the room, and observe their growing and things like that. My grandkids in Oregon love playing hide and seek – they don't have to hide anywhere except for a corner of a room," Zderad laughed again.

Humor is part of how Zderadcopes, and his curious optimism is the reason by Dr. Raymond Iezzi, a Mayo Clinic retinal surgeon and clinical ophthalmologist, chose Zderad to be the first Minnesotan to receive the bionic eye, known as the "Second Sight Argus II" retinal prosthesis system. It was approved for implantation by the FDA in January of 2014 after decades of research and an estimated $300-$500 million to develop.

"The retinal prosthesis implant has taken over 25 years to develop. Hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of people to bring this forward to this point," said Dr. Iezzi.

Dr. Iezzi hands Zderad a pair of dark tinted sunglasses with a camera embedded on the bridge of the glasses. A battery pack is attached. Zderad, a retired 3M chemist, is suddenly a kid with a new toy.

"Awesome," he said. "Is it okay if I touch?"

After several pre-op tests measuring how much light and movement Zderad is still able to see, he's ready for surgery.

The next morning, it takes three hours in the operating room, while Dr. Iezzi carefully inserts 60 electrodes into Allen's retina. Dr. Iezzi's life's work lies in a tiny chip, as he's spent decades helping engineer a retinal prosthesis. He points out it's not a cure for blindness, but the greatest tool to date.

"It's a bionic eye – in every sense of the word. It's not a replacement for the eyeball, but it works with interacting with the eye, explained Dr. Iezzi. "Mankind has been seeking to cure blindness for 2,000 years or more, but only in the past quarter of a century have we had the electronics and the packaging and all the other things come together to build a retinal prosthesis that could restore sight to the blind."

Two weeks later, comes a moment Zderad thought he'd never see again.

"I'm pins and needles – or on electrodes I should say," said Zderad.

His children and grandchildren are already moved by possibility before the bionic eye is even turned on, and it takes a moment for his miracle to come into focus.

The camera in Zderad's glasses works with a wearable computer pack. It sends information to the electrodes implanted in his retina, replacing the damaged retinal cells, and then sends signals straight to the optic nerve.

"It's the flash and I've got to be able to interpret the changes in that shape," he exclaims.

The scenes look like a scoreboard, with pixels creating mostly black and white images. It's artificial vision, but a genuine gift to Zderad, who immediately also detects some shades of blue. He embraces his wife and Dr. Iezzi, sobbing through a smile.

"His whole life we have heard – nothing can be done, nothing can be done, it's all we've heard, until now," said Carmen Zderad.

The moment is perhaps most meaningful to his 13-year-old grandson, Caleb Sorenson, of Lake City. He also inherited RP.

"I knew I was a carrier and we always knew if we had a son he should have a 50-50 chance and we always hoped he wouldn't be that 50," said Mara Sorenson, Zderad's daughter, Caleb's mother.

Caleb now has greater hope for his inherited disease.

"He can succeed," said Zderad, of his grandson. "He's defined not by his limitations but by the ability God has given…I hope he appreciates that."

Caleb is also Dr. Iezzi' s patient at the Mayo Clinic program for people with RP, and through that relationship, Dr. Iezzi asked to meet Zderad, knowing his condition would be progressed enough to respond to the bionic eye.

"He can succeed," said Zderad, of his grandson. "He's defined not by his limitations but by the ability God has given…I hope he appreciates that."

So for his grandson, Zderad steps into the unseen. He is again moved to tears when he sees a ray of sunlight in the doctor's office. He finds his reflection in a window, and then notices a sculpture in a glass case.

"I think if there is anyone that could show the world how effectively this technology works, its Mr. Zderad. He's a gifted man and he's an inspiration to many in what can be done and what can be achieved, and pushing the limits of what most people think could be done," said Dr. Iezzi.

Dr. Iezzi is already planning on implanting the device in a second patient, while researching future uses for patients who have other eye conditions besides retinitis pigmentosa, like patients with glaucoma, or soldiers who may have lost their eyes in combat. Zderad wants to help further the research by pushing his own limits.

"I'm glad I have the energy and stamina to put in the time and effort, I'm really excited. God has given me the strength at 68 years of age to still keep going, this is great," said Zderad.

To Zderad, vision is more than sight, and more than modern technology. He walks straight towards his wife and kisses her smack dab on the lips.

"Whoa, I can see with my eyes closed!" he laughs, one more time.

Zderad is the 101st person in the world to receive the Second Sight Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. He soon plans to see a movie, travel, and of course, spend time with all his grandchildren.


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