Getting Better All the Time

The story of how the Argus II retinal prosthesis—recently approved by the FDA—shed light on one Englishman’s life after decades of darkness.

Keith Hayman, age 30 (left), current (right)
In 1970, when he got married (left), Keith Hayman  was several years away from being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa. About 40 years later, attending  his daughter’s wedding, he was completely blind

Keith Hayman was in his early thirties when he had to close the butcher shop he owned and operated in northern England. Since being diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa several years earlier, his eyesight had gotten so bad, he worried about having an accident. He also couldn’t see the meat scales anymore. “And if you can’t see the scales, you can’t charge customers the right price,” he now says with a laugh.

So, after selling the shop and its equipment, a still-vibrant—not to mention gregarious—Keith retired and depended heavily on his wife, Sandra, to get around. There were holidays in Europe, weekend drop-ins at the pub and day trips to beaches. Oh, yes, and two children to raise.

By the end of the 1980s, Keith was completely blind. And the doctors he consulted were of little help when it came to assistance, or even information. “I was just put on a shelf, and that’s it,” he recounts.

In the video, above, Keith Hayman discusses his use of the Argus II system at a conference in Hamburg, Germany, in 2012. Video courtesy of Second Sight Medical Products, Inc.

Fast-forward to 2008, when Keith’s sister saw something on the local news about a clinical trial for a “retinal prosthesis” known as the Argus II. The next day, on the internet, she confirmed that one of the sites was Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, roughly 50 miles from Keith’s hometown of Fleetwood.

Over the next several months, Keith was approved and prepped as a participant in the trial, which was supervised by Paulo Stanga, professor of ophthalmology and retinal regeneration at the University of Manchester and director of the Manchester Vision Regeneration Lab. “Professor Stanga was brilliant, very nice to talk to – he explained everything,” Keith recalls.

He also warned Keith that the Argus II, the second generation of a prosthesis produced by the California-based company Second Sight, would not fully restore vision. “He didn’t want me to think that, once it was fitted, everything was going to be hunky-dory, that I’d be able to see like I could before.”

But light, Prof. Stanga told him—at the very least, he was hoping Keith could see light.

Included in the Argus II system is a computer-chip-sized, 60-electrode grid that is surgically implanted in the retina of one eye. A video camera mounted on a pair of eyeglasses transmits images to the grid, which interprets them as patterns of light, then passes them, via the optic nerve, to the brain. During the clinical trial, in 2009, researchers found that the device enabled those who’d lost vision due to damaged photoreceptors to recognize everything from shapes to large letters.

In Keith’s case, “I was only seeing light flashes early on,” he recalls. “But light flashes, when you’ve not seen anything for so many years – it was wonderful.” He soon learned how to interpret those flashes, spotting curbs, windows and doors while on walks in the neighborhood.

The defining moment for Keith, who has five grandchildren whose faces he’s never seen, was his first post-operation Guy Fawkes Night, an annual British commemoration celebrated with bonfires. Keith not only noticed the fires, “but they were lighting off fireworks. I could see all these fireworks going off. And I hadn’t seen anything for decades. It actually brought tears to my eyes.”

Having used the Argus II for more than three years now, Keith says he doesn’t want to “overstate” its impact. But “a little bit of sight is better than none,” he adds. “And, as I learn how to use it, it’s getting better all the time. It’s really brilliant.” In pubs, for instance, where he participates in quiz nights as a member of the team Blind Pew’s Crew (a reference to a character in Treasure Island), he can see the lights over the bar and discern whether someone is actually seated near him. “Before, I’d spoken to an empty chair many a time,” he explains.

And because he’s in constant contact with Prof. Stanga as well as technicians at Second Sight, Keith’s aware that future software updates to the Argus II may improve its effectiveness. And if a third generation is produced? “Well, I have another eye,” Keith says.

Even without the Argus II, Keith wasn’t living a stationary life. Aside from loving travel, the 64-year-old says he scares his wife, Sandra, by jet-skiing, speed-boating and swimming in the ocean with friends. But when the Argus II came along, “it really cheered me up,” he says. “It took years off me.”