Sandra Cassell embraced her 2-year-old son, Evan, as he climbed into her lap at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital Thursday morning. He peered into her eyes and she stared back at him, smiling with the boundless love of a proud mother.
That simple exchange of glances would have been impossible almost a year ago. For the past 16 years, a rare eye disease — retinitis pigmentosa — slowly robbed the Lachine resident of her eyesight to the point where she needed a white cane to cross the street.
But on Feb. 8, a medical team at Maisonneuve-Rosemont Hospital succeeded in partially restoring Cassell’s vision by implanting a prosthesis in her left retina, turning it into a bionic eye. The four-hour operation, led by eye surgeon Flavio Rezende, represents a medical first in Quebec.
“I never thought I’d be able to see again,” the 42-year-old social worker said.
“But now I can see. I see light, I see contrasts of different things, in black, in white and grey. It’s like an ultrasound picture.”
“This innovative technology gives hope to people with vision loss caused by degenerative diseases of the retina,” he added. “We are proud to be part of this revolution.”
The bionic eye was developed by Second Sight of California. The
Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System requires a person with severe retinitis pigmentosa to wear special glasses with a camera on the bridge. The video images taken by the camera are processed by a smartphone-sized computer worn around the waist. The images are then transmitted wirelessly to the eye implant, which is a tiny electrode array that looks like a computer chip that is embedded in the retina.
The electrode array bypasses the dead cells of the retina for ones that are still active, and those cells convert the pulses into signals for the brain.
At a cost of $150,000, the prosthesis will not be made available for everyone with vision problems. Only those patients with profound retinal dystrophy (which includes retinitis pigmentosa) will be eligible for the implant.