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Monday, November 26, 2018

Bionic eye bringing back Stockton man's vision

STOCKTON — Neyda Sanchez could feel her 11-year-old son’s heart pounding against her body.

Adrian had embraced his mom and buried his face in the comfort of her chest, but she still could make out his muffled screaming.

“Mom, mom, my dad can see,” he said. “He can see us.”

It was the moment the family of three had dreamed of for years, but none as long as Chris Sanchez. At last, he had his bionic eye implant.

Chris Sanchez, a Stockton native, was born deaf, but unknowingly he also was born with Usher syndrome, a genetic condition characterized by partial or total hearing loss and vision loss that worsens over time.

The inherited disease caused his vision to deteriorate during his childhood and into adulthood. It escalated from tripping while walking, to losing the ball while playing soccer, to not seeing a pencil in front of him until he lost all vision at 27 years old.

Sanchez, who was enrolled at boarding schools for the deaf in Berkeley and Fremont, began having difficulties seeing at night when he was about 9 years old, he said. Life around him was becoming dim. By 10, his parents, who he saw on the weekends, realized his vision was worsening.

Five years later, a doctor at UC Davis Medical Center would tell them why.

Sanchez remembers that before he lost his sight, he watched “Star Trek: Next Generation” and was drawn to the character Geordi La Forge, an officer on the Starfleet who was born blind but wore a device over his eyes that allowed him to see in infrared and ultraviolet ranges.

Sanchez, 47, who tinkered with technology since he was a kid, said he believed technological advances could make the device worn by La Forge on the show into a reality.

And on Sept. 11, Sanchez joined the approximately .4 percent of people in the U.S. to have undergone a surgery to receive a bionic eye system not unlike what La Forge had.

The device, called the Argus II Retinal Prosthesis System, is made up of a pair of glasses with a camera and a processor that includes an implant. It uses electrical stimulation of the retina to induce visual perception in blind individuals with severe to profound retinitis pigmentosa, according to Second Sight, which developed the system.

Sanchez said the camera captures a scene that is then processed and sent to his brain. He described what he sees as a series of flashing lights similar to when someone looks at a mirror as the sun hits it. But Sanchez explained that each patient’s experience is different.

On a recent trip to a department store, Sanchez saw a Christmas tree decorated and lit up. He didn’t see the tree itself, but he could make out everything else.

It’s not perfect vision, but it’s better than blindness, he said. He is slowly learning and adapting to the system and is scheduled for another surgery Dec. 12 with the prospect of improving his sight.

Neyda Sanchez said her husband waited for the call about his bionic eye for many years.

So on Sept. 11, once the surgery was complete and Chris Sanchez was awake, the family of three couldn’t contain their excitement.

“It was a beautiful experience because we were waiting for that moment,” she said.

When they turned on Chris Sanchez’s device, his first reaction was, “Whoa, whoa,” Neyda Sanchez said. Then she and her son heard Chris say what they had so eagerly and anxiously waited for: “I can see you. That’s my son right there.”

Adrian Sanchez, whose dad is his hero, said he felt his heart beating so fast and was ecstatic.

Neyda Sanchez, who has overcome her own challenges following a car wreck in 1995 that left her disabled, said she’s inspired by her husband’s determination and how he takes on challenges in life.

“I started noticing that he has more sight than I do,” said Neyda Sanchez, who met Chris when they were students at San Joaquin Delta College. “He can see more than I can see — he has more understanding than many people.

“He knew that being blind is not darkness.”

Before she met him, she was depressed and panicked about her future, she said. But he told her, “give yourself a chance.”

“Life is not over, because we’re still breathing,” she recalled her husband telling her. “Let’s not waste our time. Let’s do something.”

Life has been difficult for him, but he has never given up, she said.

For Chris Sanchez, who earned a bachelor’s of science in information technology management from the University of Phoenix, life is about taking charge and not accepting the limitations other people place on him, he said.

While people who knew him questioned his decisions and his investments in technology to improve his life, he said it’s paid off. He’s now a software quality assurance engineer with Infosys, which has contracts with various companies including Apple.

“I want to be somebody,” Chris Sanchez said. “I can make it. I can do it.”

Contact reporter Almendra Carpizo at (209) 546-8264 or acarpizo@recordnet.com. Follow her on Twitter @AlmendraCarpizo.



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