After 20 years of blindness, Georgia man regains some vision with 'bionic eye'
DALTON, Ga. - When Walfre Lopez puts his "bionic eye" on, it takes a moment for the system to warm up. But then, the 46-year old Dalton father of two, blinded by retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, more than 20 years ago, notices the photographer's light stand.
"I can see light here on the right side," Lopez says, describing the stand. " Without the glasses, I am not able to see the light."
Lopez was 21, newly married to his wife Marioly and living in Guatemala when his vision began deteriorating. And blindness came quickly.
"It was like a nightmare," Marioly says.
Lopez was diagnosed with RP, a group of inherited genetic disorders that destroy the light-sensitive cells in the retina, which is the tissue that lines the back of the eye.
"One day he said, 'Mari, Marioly, I can't drive anymore.'" his wife remembers. "And I started to drive. I started to do (it) all at home."
"I completely lost my sight around 24, 23 years [of age]," Walfre Lopez says.
By the time his daughter, who is now 12, was born, Lopez had no idea what she looked like. He had to quit working and found himself unable to cook, something he'd always enjoyed doing.Then, after 22 years of darkness, hope.
"One day I was searching something on the internet, I was reading," Lopez says. "It [said it] was a bionic eye."
Lopez had discovered the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis, a kind of visual relay system that can partially-restore some vision in people blinded by R-P. Dr. Gibran Khurshid, an ophthalmologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville says working with Lopez and other RP sufferers is humbling.
"These are the patients who have been blind for years and years and years," Dr. Khurshid says. "And they've gotten used to the mantra that nothing can be done. But, now when we tell them, 'We might be able to help you.' It's very emotional for the patients, and very hopeful."
In January of 2017, Lopez had a small electrode surgically implanted in the back of his eye. It's part of a system that uses a tiny camera mounted in his glasses and a computer he wears on his belt electronically transmit visual information, bypassing the damaged cells in his eye.
"The point to keep in mind is it's not a replacement of your normal vision," Dr. Khurshid explains. "It's basically a seventh sense we give the patient. And then we teach the patient, rehabilitate the patient, to use that seventh sense as vision."
A month post-surgery, the device was turned on.
"There were some flashing lights and I didn't know what it was," Walfre Lopez remembers. "It was a very strong moment," Dr. Khurshid says. "Very humbling for us, because the patient was able to see the sunlight coming through the window, the outline of the door."
"We cried," Marioly Lopez says. Everybody cried that day."
On the drive back to Georgia, Walfre Lopez turned the Argus II on again, to practice.
"And he started to see cars, he started to see buildings, and flashing lights and everything," his wife says. "It was amazing that day."
Learning to use the device requires time and training. Right now, Walfre Lopez can only see contrasts and shapes, but he's back to cooking and feeling hopeful for the first time in a long time.
"I have no words to explain the way I feel now."
Marioly says she's seen a big change, for the positive, in Walfre.
"For the first time, he approaches me and kisses me," she smiles. "That's never happened before. And it is amazing."