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A second chance at sight: Blind ND man hopes high-tech chip, camera system gives him a measure of sight

Allan Peterson of Horace, N.D., will be getting a chip implanted in his left eye to aid in restoring a measure of his sight that was lost years ago to an eye disease. David Samson / Forum News Service

HORACE, N.D.—Retinitis pigmentosa robbed Allan Peterson of his sight and some of his independence

Now, cutting-edge technology promises to give him back a little bit of both.

Today, the 73-year-old Horace man will have surgery at the University of Minnesota Medical Center-Fairview to have an electronic implant attached to the retina of his eye that—paired with a camera on a special set of glasses—could give him the ability to once again recognize shapes and forms: edges of doorways, people in front of him, patterns of light.

He'll be the eighth person to get the system implanted at the U of M in Minneapolis.

"It isn't like normal sight. There isn't any color vision. I see what the camera sees. I will have to turn my head so the camera will focus light on that chip," Peterson said.

But after decades of finding it difficult to even tell if it's light or dark out, he's excited about the possibilities of this "bionic eye," especially after having talked with people who now use the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System by Second Sight.

"You can walk independently. I won't be able to shed my cane. You have to be able to let people know you're not operating with normal eyes," but "I will be able to travel much more independently than I can at this time," Peterson said.

"One of the people I talked to, she likes it because she's a cook, and she can see things and can cook and see the things that she needs to use," he said.

Peterson and his wife, Judy, have three adult children and three grandchildren.

"I'm hoping that I can see faces a little bit. I haven't seen my children since they were little guys," he said.

From normal to nothing

Retinitis pigmentosa is a rare genetic disease that causes loss of sight, though there is no history of it in his family, Peterson said.

Peterson was raised on a dairy farm south of Brandon, Minn., near Alexandria and says he had fairly normal sight. After graduating from high school, he went to the University of Minnesota-Morris, where he earned degrees in biology and chemistry.

He and Judy married in 1971.

He eventually received a doctorate in veterinary medicine from the University of Minnesota-St. Paul.

He was an assistant professor in the NDSU Department of Veterinary Medicine when he was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, though he had already noticed some night blindness about five years before.

It didn't cause him a lot of problems at first, but a couple of years later, night driving became a problem. Then he started losing his field of vision.

"It got down to the point, at the end, I could only see a very narrow field of vision—part of a letter on a page of print," Peterson said, and he gave up reading.

At age 45, he started learning braille, and learned how to use a white cane and a computer without sight. Over time, he's relied on tape recorders and other audio equipment. He still enjoys television with an "audio description" service.

Peterson said he had some resentment about losing his sight.

"You drop something on the floor and you have to get down on your hands and knees. You get frustrated when things like that happen," he said. "I haven't been happy about losing my sight, but I've come to terms with it."

Peterson found out about the Argus II system from Dr. Lance Bergstrom of the Bergstrom Eye and Laser Clinic in Fargo.

Bergstrom had gone to a meeting in Chicago and saw some people who were using the bionic eye system. He encouraged Peterson to see if the system would work for him.

"He has been the prime motivator for making this happen," Peterson said.

How it works

According to Second Sight, the Argus II works by electrically stimulating the retina to induce visual perception in blind people.

A miniature video camera in the patient's glasses sends video to a small patient-worn computer. The video is processed and transformed into instructions sent to the glasses via a cable. The instructions are then transmitted wirelessly to an antenna in the retinal implant. The signals are then sent to the electrode array, which emits small pulses of electricity. These pulses bypass the damaged photoreceptors and stimulate the retina's remaining cells, which transmit the visual information along the optic nerve to the brain, allowing the wearer to see patterns of light. Over time, patients learn to interpret these visual patterns.

"I'm a bit apprehensive about it, but I know they've done it before" Peterson said. "Pretty experimental stuff. I'm mostly comfortable with it."

Time to heal first

After the chip is implanted, Peterson will have to heal for two to three months before he begins training to use the Argus II.

He'll also be part of a study for the bionic eye system, he said.

Judy Peterson is excited for her husband.

"It should be something wonderful, we're hoping," Judy said.

She's hoping it will add to his independence and help him "see things he hasn't seen at all for years."

Peterson still keeps an office at NDSU and does a lot of volunteer work.

He's the development director for the North Dakota Association of the Blind, a board member for the American Council for the Blind, a member of the Horace Lions Club and is active in his church.

Still, he's looking forward to a greater degree of independence.

"I'm pretty self-sufficient at this point, but I'm always looking for something that will help me to a greater degree. I'm not a person who is static. I'd like to move ahead and move on," Peterson said.

"This is going to be an adventure. We're starting the adventure at this point," he said.

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including K-12 education, Fargo city government, criminal justice, and military affairs. He is currently one of The Forum's business reporters.

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