Modern miracle restores sight, reveals faith

NEW LIGHT. After turning on his new “bionic eye,” Larry Hester navigates the hallway at Duke Eye Center with his surgeon Dr. Paul Hahn in 2014. Hester was the seventh person in the U.S. to receive the visual-aid device known as the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. Photo by Shawn Rocco used with permission from Duke Health.

NEW LIGHT. After turning on his new “bionic eye,” Larry Hester navigates the hallway at Duke Eye Center with his surgeon Dr. Paul Hahn in 2014. Hester was the seventh person in the U.S. to receive the visual-aid device known as the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. Photo by Shawn Rocco used with permission from Duke Health.

“I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.” (Isa. 42:16)

RALEIGH, N.C. — Larry Hester attended Chowan College in Murfreesboro, N.C., where he was a football hero. There he captured the heart of Jerry Morris, a Baptist preacher’s daughter, and convinced her to become his wife.

Their story is a one of deep love and faith, which has carried them through many challenging situations together.

THE CHALLENGE

My husband Chuck and I met Larry and Jerry Hester at Raleigh’s Forest Hills Baptist Church in 1983. The four of us, plus two other couples, formed a prayer group to pray for our church. During these holy times we also prayed for each other and for our families.

At one prayer gathering Larry and Jerry revealed some devastating news: he had been diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (RP), a genetic condition that could lead to blindness. Larry was just 33 years old at the time.

For some, such news might lead to depression or to blaming God for being unfair or unkind. However, while Larry and Jerry were shocked at the news, their faith gave them the courage to face this challenge with love and compassion.

Our prayer group was there for them every step of the way — praying constantly through the years, as did many others who knew Larry and Jerry and their family. Larry’s condition deteriorated rapidly, and he quickly became totally blind.

Larry and his brother Reece owned a tire company. One might imagine that Larry would be unable to continue to work.

However, Larry memorized the office area and the shop, and when customers came in to have a tire repaired it was likely they would not know he was blind unless someone else told them.

He carried on with his life, never complaining, always positive, with a smile on his face and always with a deep sense of faith and a love of his God. But still his wife and friends and family prayed for a miracle.

NEW VISION

Jerry read about a new procedure that was gaining approval from the FDA in early 2013 — called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System. She immediately began to inquire about this new device, and we prayed that Larry might be able to benefit from it.

Jerry’s persistence paid off and at age 66, having been blind for half his life, Larry Hester became the seventh person in the U.S. to receive the bionic eye — designed by Second Sight Medical Products. Dr. Paul Hahn, then a retinal surgeon at Duke Eye Center in Durham, N.C., implanted the miraculous device.

A simple Google search of Larry’s name and “bionic eye” leads to a Duke Medicine video of the moment when the device was activated and Larry could “see” again.

While it is truly a miracle, his sight is limited to distinguishing between light and dark. To Larry and Jerry, however, this has been life-changing.

He can see window and door openings. And more exciting, he can distinguish the shapes of his children and grandchildren.

TECHNOLOGY

In the Duke Chronicle, Dr. Hahn explained that the technology involves a special pair of glasses with a video camera right in the middle and a small, connected computer, worn on the belt or placed in a purse. The computer processes the video camera, which sends the signal back to the glasses. That is the external part of the device.

Once the signal gets back up to the glasses it communicates wirelessly to the part of the device that is surgically implanted: basically an antenna — called a coil — that goes around the eye to a microchip implanted on the surface of the retina. The microchip stimulates the part of the retina undamaged by RP.

“The first thing I tell patients is that with the technology you’re not going to be able to drive; you’re not going to be able to read; you’re not even going to be able to recognize faces,” said Dr. Hahn in the Chronicle. “What this technology does give you is flashes of light that sort of correspond to things that are going on around you.”

In the article he explained the 60-pixel implant in more detail, and then offered this hopeful bottom line: “The amount of information you can get is a little bit crude, but when you compare it to not having any vision, it’s actually quite profound.”

Patients, he said, are able to follow the straight lines of curbs and crosswalks and see persons who pass in front of them. They navigate their own surroundings much better.

“They can identify things like their toothbrush or even their place settings,” he added.

CELEBRATIONS

Larry Hester and his wife Jerry celebrate the results from the new bionic eye device implanted at Duke Eye Center in October 2014. Hester became blind at age 33 from retinitis pigmentosa. While the device does not restore vision in the normal sense, it provides light-and-darkness differentiation. Photo by Shawn Rocco used with permission from Duke Health.

Larry Hester and his wife Jerry celebrate the results from the new bionic eye device implanted at Duke Eye Center in October 2014. Hester became blind at age 33 from retinitis pigmentosa. While the device does not restore vision in the normal sense, it provides light-and-darkness differentiation. Photo by Shawn Rocco used with permission from Duke Health.

One Christmas, Larry and Jerry visited their daughter’s family for an evening. Their son-in-law asked them to not pull into the driveway. They were puzzled by that request, but parked on the street.

As they walked toward the garage, Jerry could see that white Christmas lights had been placed around the rim of a basketball goal.

When handed a basketball by his son-in-law, Larry proceeded to make seven straight goals. What joy! What a miracle was celebrated!

With his humble demeanor and Christian witness, Larry has traveled widely as an ambassador for the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis Device — often called simply his bionic eye — and for the faith that has sustained him. He has had much more than 15 minutes of fame allowing for his faithful witness.

Larry has rung the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange and, with Jerry, appeared on the big screen in Times Square. They have been interviewed on ABC News and by other broadcasters worldwide.

Through it all, Larry’s faith — which has been strong through the deep valleys and mountain highs — shines. Larry Hester is the Bionic Baptist! NFJ

By Carol Boseman Taylor

Carol Boseman Taylor is a member of Lakeside Baptist Church in Rocky Mount, N.C., and the author of I Promise. Rejoice! A Daily Life Guide (2015, Nurturing Faith). She serves on the Board of Directors of Baptists Today/Nurturing Faith.