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The Man with the Bionic Eye

The bionic eye “allows me to connect with the world again,” Allen Zderad told a gathering at Vision Loss Resources on April 25.

Minnesota’s first person to receive a bionic eye spoke at a meeting of the Northern Lights Chapter of the Foundation Fighting Blindness. Zderad, accompanied by his wife, Carmen, described the surgery and his experience with the device, while answering questions from the audience.

Allen Zderad addressed a large crowd.

Allen Zderad addressed a large crowd.

Zderad, 68, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 2, and recently came to the attention of Mayo Clinic researcher Dr. Raymond Iezzi Jr., an ophthalmologist who is seeing Zderad’s grandson who also has retinitis pigmentosa. It was Dr. Iezzi who performed the surgery on Zderad in mid-January, implanting electrodes on the surface of his retina, along with an antenna. The device and its external unit were switched on in mid-February.

Zderad wears glasses with a camera and antenna attached, and also carries a video processing unit connected to the glasses by cable. When Zderad scans an area and sees a pulse of light, the electrodes on his retina have been stimulated and he begins to identify the outline of objects. Zderad said he sees flashes of light that he is learning to interpret, and that he’s getting better at it as time passes. “I’m the original bobblehead,” he said, referring to the way he must move his head to allow the tiny camera on his glasses to find light sources. He said with a chuckle that Carmen told him the first thing he learned to identify was the refrigerator door handle.

 Zderad said that his vision is very context dependent– if he identifies a curve without context, he doesn’t know if it’s a giraffe or a lightbulb. In the room on Saturday, Zderad said he saw a “vertical blob” and asked his wife if that was the podium, because someone had told him there would be a podium. Zderad said that he saw a vertical line, and asked Carmen if that was a table, because he had been told there would be a table.

Allen and Carmen Zderad

Allen and Carmen Zderad

 When the couple visited their family in Oregon, Zderad said they went to the ocean and he was able to identify patterns of light that he knew were the crests of the waves and the wash when the waves hit the shore. He identified the sunset, the moon, and fish in a public aquarium.  The images he sees are black and white. Carmen said, “He will not lose his [white] cane, this is just another tool.”

 Zderad said he can’t feel the device or the antenna in his eye, and Carmen said that she can’t see it on or in his eye, either. When Zderad had the implant surgery, there was “very, very little” post-op pain that he said was taken care of with Tylenol. “Even as I speak today I don’t feel a thing,” he said.

 Zderad was the first person in Minnesota, the 15th in the United States and about the 100th person worldwide to receive the device.

The Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System is produced by Second Sight.

Vision Loss Resources thanks the Northern Lights chapter of Foundation Fighting Blindness for organizing this inspiring event. 

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