Reed City resident first man in the U.S. to receive 'bionic eye' to help restore vision

REED CITY — When Roger Pontz first began losing his vision about 18 years ago, he made a vow to his wife.

“I told Terri ‘I don’t know what, when or how, but I will see again sometime in my life,’" he said.

He was right.

Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa shortly after failing a routine eye examine in ninth grade, Pontz lived a normal life with no effects from the disease throughout high school. In his late 20s, his vision began to slowly deteriorate and Pontz voluntarily gave up his driver’s license.

Pontz was a competitive weightlifter and was employed as a factory worker until he was unable to continue the job. The 55-year-old Reed City man has been almost completely blind for the last 10 to 15 years, but has worked for the last two years as a nighttime dishwasher at The Gate in Big Rapids.

On Jan. 22, Pontz underwent surgery hoping to improve and restore his vision in some capacity.

During the surgery at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center in Ann Arbor, a “bionic eye” implant was placed in the back of Pontz’s left eye.

Pontz is the first man in the United States to receive an artificial retina since the Food and Drug Administration approved its use last year.

The artificial implant is part of the ARGUS II system developed by Second Sight Medical Products, Inc. that includes a small video camera and transmitter in a pair of glasses.

Pontz carries a bag with a small computer system which sends the signal from the camera to the chip in his eye, he said.

According to Second Sight’s website, the signals are then sent to the electrode array, which emits small pulses of electricity. These pulses are intended to bypass the damaged photoreceptors and stimulate the retina’s remaining healthy cells, which transmit the visual information along the optic nerve to the brain. This process is intended to create the perception of patterns of light which patients can learn to interpret as visual patterns.

It’s all based on black and white contrast, Pontz said. What he is able to see is flashes and movement, but he has to decipher what those flashes are.

“I no longer put my hands in front of me or bang into things in the house since I’ve had this ARGUS II implant,” Pontz said. “I can tell when my grandson runs in front of me. I can tell when my wife has dark pants on and a white top and vice versa."

Duane Tsutsui, marketing communication manager for Second Sight, said the technology has been 23 years in the making.

"After all that time and work and effort, helping people like Roger is what makes it worth it," Tsutsui said.

Once a week, Pontz and his wife go to Ann Arbor for “brain training.” The sessions have focused on having Pontz identify black and white plates against dark and light backgrounds, bright verses dim flashlights and working with visually determining shapes.

Terri said it’s been amazing to see her husband gain some of his vision back.

Roger now does things Terri never thought he would be able to do again, like stare at her while eating because he can see the spoon moving from the bowl to her mouth or “people watch” at Seaworld as the flashes of passersby walked in front of him.

“I’m so grateful to all the people who made this possible,” Terri said. “I don’t know how to say thank you enough. How do you say thank you to the people giving your husband his vision back? There are no words.”

Roger said he would be pleased if all he got out of the surgery was what has been restored so far, but he also believes the implants will be enhanced and he could be seeing more in the future.

“I’d be really happy with this if this was all it was, but you’ve got to believe in yourself and I believe in myself and I think it’s going to go a lot further than this,” he said. “They really want to expand this down the road. That’s their goal and mine.”

Tsutsui said Second Sight is working on software upgrades which would be downloaded to the ARGUS II system.

As the algorithms are updated to improve the images, Roger's sight could be restored even further, he said.

The ultimate goal of Second Sight is to be able to bypass the retina and optic nerve, instead directly stimulating the visual cortex in the brain.

"The advantage of that is that patient wouldn’t be required to have a functioning retina or optic nerve," Tsutsui said. "Then instead of just working with those with advance retinitis pigmentosa, we could essentially provide images to people who are experiencing blindness from other diseases or even trauma. We've been researching and we believe we can accomplish it, so that’s what we're working toward."

For Roger, who first heard about the emerging technology about seven years ago, persistence was key to getting the opportunity to restore his sight.

“You can’t give up," he said. "You have to keep trying and trying until you find the right thing.”