Kalida woman has first U.S. FDA-approved bionic eye
Thursday, April 17, 2014 12:01 AM
Linda Schulte shows her glasses featuring a camera that sends a message to the computer she is holding. This computer then sends a message wirelessly to the prosthesis with electrodes that are installed on her retina. The board (at right) is used as the training to help Schulte recognize shapes. (Putnam Sentinel/Nancy Kline)
KALIDA — Linda Schulte said she cried when she found out there may be a way that she could “see” once again.
The 65-year-old Kalida woman was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa when she was in her forties. Retinitis pigmentosa is an inherited retina degenerative disease that causes slow but progressive vision loss due to a gradual loss of the light-sensitive retinal cells. Patients with RP experience loss of side and night vision, and later central vision, which can result in near blindness.
Schulte said she initially heard about the process as a member of the Foundation Fighting Blindness.
Then in February 2013 she heard a news item that the process known as Argus® II Retina Prosthesis System, developed by Second Sight Medical Products Inc., of Sylmar, Calif, had received FDA approval.
Once she heard this, Schulte was anxious to see if she qualified for the implant. Contacting the California company she learned 10 sites in the United States had been approved to do the implant.
“They recommended the Cleveland Clinic since I live in Ohio,” Schulte said. “But when I contacted them I waited and waited and never heard back.”
Schulte then contacted the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center in Ann Arbor, another approved site. “They called right back and were excited,” she said. Once the process began, Schulte discovered she had to have patience to endure the many steps and setbacks on her road to receive her “bionic eye.” She had her first appointment in Michigan on Sept. 23, 2012.
Her initial exam revealed she had cataracts.
“They decided to have the cataract taken out of the right eye, since they thought this was the better eye.”
Schulte had the cataract removed in Lima and then returned to Michigan for an exam. During the exam it was discovered there was a mole on the back of the eye making it not good for the implant.
“I was depressed at that point,” Schulte admitted. She returned to Michigan to have the cataract taken out of her left eye. The doctors in Ann Arbor determined this eye would qualify for the implant.
“Then we set up to have the surgery on January 2,” Schulte said. “We had to cancel because there was a blizzard and we couldn’t get to the hospital.” The surgery was rescheduled for Jan. 16, 2014. Dr. Thiran Jaysunder was her surgeon.
“The doctor offered to pay for my hotel room if I would come up the night before,” Schulte said. “He wanted to make sure I was there for the scheduled surgery.”
Schulte was the first patient in the United States to have the Retina Protheses System implanted after the system received FDA approval. Schulte said there were doctors from all over the world present at the surgery along with representatives from the Second Sight Medical Products company.
The surgery to put in the implant took four and a half hours. Schulte had the surgery on a Thursday and came home on Saturday. The Schultes had to rush back to Michigan on Sunday when Linda’s eye began to seep. She had to have followup surgery on Feb. 6 when it was determined she needed another stitch.
“I had to wear a big eye patch all this time,” Schulte said.
On Feb. 25, the Schultes returned to Ann Arbor for an appointment where Linda was given her new glasses to go with her bionic eye. She was instructed to wear the glasses so she could get used to them.
After Schulte had sufficiently recovered from her surgery the retinal prothesis was activated. Training then began for Schulte to adapt to the new vision.
Schulte’s glasses are equipped with a camera that captures images and converts them into a series of small electrical pulses. The pulses are transmitted wirelessly to the prothesis and the numerous electrodes on the surface of the retinal. These pulses are intended to stimulate the retina’s remaining cells, resulting in a corresponding perception of patterns of light in the brain.
She is having to learn to interpret these visual patterns. She has three or four more visits for her training to adopt to the new way of seeing. Schulte understands she will not have 20/20 vision or be able to distinguish faces, but will be able to recognize dark and light shapes.
“I saw my grandson playing basketball,” she said proudly. She was outside when he was playing wearing a shirt with a white stripe on it. “I could see the flashes for the stripe and hear the basketball and knew I was seeing him play basketball.”
Another time she was baking cookies and saw the gallon of milk through flashes on the counter. “It kept me from knocking the milk on the floor,” she said.
Schulte said she and her husband “Smiley” have really appreciated the support they have received from the community. “They have been so good with their support and prayers,” she said.
“I couldn’t have done this without my husband,” she added. “He has been supportive and driven me back and forth for all the appointments.”
Since her surgery, four other patients have received the implants and another man is scheduled to have it. Schulte has been in touch with two sisters who had the surgery and the man who is going to have the surgery.
“They want us to get together so we can share our experiences,” she said.
Schulte said if a person is considering the implant they need to have one or two people who are able to make the many trips to the hospital that are required.
“You also have to understand you won’t get back things like being able to drive or read, but will experience some of the great little things like getting to see your grandchildren run around the yard.”