A New Device Allows the Blind to See Again

November 13, 2019 Updated: November 13, 2019

Jason Esterhuizen had always dreamed of becoming a pilot. Tragically, a car accident left him blind. Eight years later, he’s able to see for the first time again thanks to a new medical device.

Esterhuizen was 23 years old when he was driving in his native South Africa in December 2011. While he was driving, a pedestrian ran in front of him. Esterhuizen swerved to avoid him, but lost control of the car.

The car hit the curb, and flipped over. Esterhuizen wasn’t wearing his seatbelt, and his face collided with the dashboard before he was ejected from the vehicle.

Esterhuizen at UCLA
Jason Esterhuizen was blind for eight years. (Courtesy of UCLA Health)

Esterhuizen faded in and out of consciousness, and woke up two weeks later after being put into a medically induced coma.

“I’m lucky to be alive,” Esterhuizen told The Epoch Times.

Loss of Eyesight

Esterhuizen lost his right eye, tore the optic nerve in his left eye, broke both eye sockets, his nose, his jaw, his cheekbone, and fractured his skull.

When Esterhuizen first woke up he was in shock. In fact, he thought he was dreaming. The doctor arrived, and told him he had been in a car accident, and that as a result of his injuries he would never be able to see again.

Esterhuizen was shaken, and struggled to accept the fact that he was blind.

“Honestly it took me about two years to actually make my peace with it. I was struggling to accept the fact that I’m blind,” Esterhuizen explained.

Esterhuizen at UCLA
Jason Esterhuizen lived in complete darkness for eight years following his car accident. (Courtesy of UCLA Health)

After Esterhuizen came to grips with his blindness, he began to embrace life more and more.

He started going out again, and would to ride a motorcycle while following the sound of his brother-in-law’s four wheeler in front of him on their farm.

He started going out with friends again, and adapted to the challenges of not being able to see. Despite experiencing frustrating days, he eventually made peace with the fact that he would be blind for the rest of his life.

Out of the Darkness

Five years ago, Esterhuizen was listening to a show called “Carte Blanche” in South Africa which is similar to our news program “60 Minutes” here in the United States. There was a story about experimental implants for patients with retinitis pigmentosa that was helping restore their vision. UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine had partnered with the company Second Sight to develop a device called Orion.

Before Esterhuizen could reach out to them, a friend of his had already done so on his behalf.

Esterhuizen was invited to the United States to participate in the experimental trial of the device in March 2018. After his medical and psychological screening, Esterhuizen was scheduled for surgery on March 29, 2018.

Doctors at UCLA removed a small piece of Esterhuizen’s skull, and placed an implant with 6o electrodes on the visual cortex of his brain. They then replaced the little piece of skull, and sealed the incision. After a month of recovery, doctors tested each electrode on the implant to see which ones were most effective.

Esterhuizen sorts laundry
Jason Esterhuizen can now distinguish between light and dark, identify objects, sort laundry, and cross the street safely. (Courtesy of UCLA Health)

Esterhuizen wears a pair of sunglasses which have a small camera attached to them. The camera translates images into electrical pulses, which stimulate the electrodes on the implant on his visual cortex. The implant then delivers electrical pulses to his primary visual cortex that allow him to see again to a great extent.

“That first moment when they turn it on is amazing, but then I think even more moving is hearing stories about how they use the device and how it becomes such a natural part of what they do,” Dr. Nader Pouratian said.

Esterhuizen can now see movement, can distinguish between light and dark, sort laundry, identify objects around him, and cross the street safely.

“Every time I switch this thing on and I can see stuff I just get this huge smile on my face because I can see something again,” Esterhuizen said.