A version of this story was originally posted on BetaBoston.com
In his hometown of Reed City, Mich., Roger Pontz is a dishwasher in a bowling alley bar. But in medical circles, he’s pioneering a new frontier.
Pontz, 55, is 1 of the first commercial recipients of the Argus II bionic eye made by Second Sight Medical. The device, which partially restores sight in retinitis pigmentosa patients, is the 1st commercially available treatment for blindness approved by the FDA.
Pontz, who had his surgery in January, was in Boston last week as part of a mini-media tour for Second Sight as it touts the benefits of the Argus II device. The former auto factory worker lost his vision 10 years ago after a slow deterioration that started when he was a teenager.
"Before I had the surgery, I would have to put my hands out in front of me when I walked around my house and I’d run into walls and get frustrated. I no longer have to do that," Pontz told MassDevice.com.
Asked what it’s like to recover some of his vision, Pontz simply said, "It’s pretty awesome."
The Argus II has 2 main components: An eyeglass-mounted camera and an electrical stimulator that’s surgically implanted in the eye during a 5-hour, outpatient procedure. The device converts images captured by the camera into a series of electrical pulses, which are then transmitted wirelessly to electrodes in the retina to simulate vision.
For an approximation of what patients like Pontz see using the Argus II, imagine a black & white photo of yourself, pixilated to the point that most of your features are indistinguishable.
“It’s mostly flashes,” Pontz explained. “Right now we’re at the point where you get flashes. If you take a white plate and hold it up against black, you can see the plate – but you need the contrast.”
If that sounds underwhelming, for patients such as Pontz the difference between seeing nothing and being able to distinguish shapes and images is truly life-altering.
"It’s very exciting," Pontz told us. "The 1st time they turned it on, I thought, ‘No, I’m just dreaming or hoping,’ because I saw a flash. Then they shut it off and turned it back on again, and I just blurted out, ‘There’s a flash on there!’ Nobody said anything, so I said to the doctors, ‘There was a flash on there, wasn’t there?’ And they were like, ‘Yup, there was.’"
Pontz’s wife, Terry Pontz, said the little improvements added up to a huge quality-of-life improvement for Roger.
"The other day, he could see my spoon when I was eating my oatmeal. I never thought I’d have to say this to him, but I said, ‘Quit staring at me while I’m eating.’ And then he poked my oatmeal with his finger," she said. "Now he can see where his plate of food is on the table. He can see where the cup is. Can you imagine how frustrating it is that you reach over to grab your fork and you knock the cup of juice over? Or you can’t find your fork on the table and you’re always feeling around for stuff?"
"She said, ‘Can you see my oatmeal bowl?” Pontz added. "I looked around and saw it. I asked her, ‘You’re all done with this, right?’ and then, like the Three Stooges, I took my 2 fingers and went ‘bloop’ right into the oatmeal. I said, ‘There’s your oatmeal.’"
Pontz’s vision continues to improve every day as his brain gets used to processing the images his camera is picking up. It’s a long and arduous process, but early recipients of the Argus II have even gone on to shoot baskets with their grandchildren. That’s a goal Pontz, with 2 grandkids of his own, would like to achieve.
"I told [my wife] for at least 15 years that I didn’t know when, where, what or how, but I will see something again," he said. "You gotta believe in yourself."