Amazing Charlotte: ‘I once was blind, but now I see’
“I first noticed problems with my vision when I was just 10 years old,” says Charlotte. “At the beginning of the school year I could read what the teacher wrote on the board but by the end of the year I could no longer see it clearly and had particular difficulty reading words written in red or green.”
Her parents took her to an ophthalmologist who diagnosed Charlotte with retinitis pigmentosa (RP) – a rare, progressive disorder that causes the light receptors in the retina to degenerate. While other parts of their visual system – such as the optic nerve and the visual centre in the brain – remain intact, people with RP gradually lose vision as more and more of their light receptors fail.
“After learning that I had RP, the decline in my vision continued until I lost my sight completely around the aged of 20,” Charlotte recalls. “I was given medication when I was 15 which I was supposed to take every day of my life but after about a month I stopped – I was a bit fed up.”
Despite being blind for most of her 20s, Charlotte got on with life. She started a family, had three children, and stayed active.
Then one day in February 2015, the phone rang. It was the University Hospital of Bordeaux. “They called to tell me about a new device for people with RP and asked if I would be interested in being one of first people in France to try it,” says Charlotte.
The technology in question is a kind of ‘bionic eye’ that aims to do the job of the faulty light receptors in Charlotte’s retina. Charlotte wears special glasses with a camera that ‘sees’ what she is looking at. This information is translated into an electrical signal that is sent via WiFi to 60 tiny electrodes that have been implanted in her retina. These electrodes carry the signal to the brain through the optic nerve.
“I’d never heard of anything like this before,” Charlotte says. “At first I wasn’t so sure but after I learned a little more I said ‘let’s go for it!’ and became quite enthusiastic about what this could mean for me.”
In November that year, Charlotte had the operation. After giving the eye a week to recover from surgery, doctors switched on the device. During two ‘fitting’ sessions, they adjusted the system to suit their patient while Charlotte got to grips with her new way of seeing the world.
“For the first week, my eye was weeping and it was a little uncomfortable but I got used to it,” says Charlotte. “Then after some specialist training and spending time using the system, I was able to see in a totally new way.”
It was a strange sensation. The images Charlotte can see are not exactly the same as those she had seen as a child – the camera and electrodes are a powerful combination but not as sophisticated as a fully-functioning human eye.
“It’s different to normal vision: when you look at a car you don’t instantly see it as a car. You have to scan with the camera and figure out what it is based on all the things you’ve seen before, but with practice it becomes easier.”
‘I can see’
Nonetheless, the technology has been transformative. “It’s quite cool because when I walk outside I can see trash, cars, the zebra crossing; I can find doors, see people, see whether they are wearing bright or dark clothes. I can see.”
18 months after her surgery, Charlotte is used to the system and delighted she decided to go for it. She doesn’t wear the glasses at home where she is already used to the fast-paced family life that comes with having three children, but when she goes out the technology is a game-changer.
“When I go shopping I like to wear my glasses. I used to try on clothes and ask the shop assistant how it looks or what colour a pair of jeans is; now I can see for myself,” she says. “And, in the supermarket, I know whether I’m buying red or green apples. I still have the life I had before my surgery but I can see what’s happening around me.”
So, what advice would Charlotte have for people with RP who are offered this ‘bionic eye’ technology? “I would tell them to go for it – go to one of the three hospitals in France that does this operation and see if you pass all the tests.”