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VIDEO: Blind pastor sees his wife for the first time, thanks to innovative “bionic” eye

University of Minnesota Health surgeons implanted the Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System in James Kelm earlier in March.
James Kelm, a blind pastor, hugs his sister at University of Minnesota Medical Center last week following the activation of a "bionic eye" device that restored some of his sight.

James Kelm was a busy man in his youth. The Michigan native rode a motorcycle, boxed competitively and taught himself guitar.

All the while, though, a rare genetic disorder called retinitis pigmentosa (RP) was slowly robbing him of eyesight. RP, a rare genetic disorder, is a degenerative disease that involves the breakdown and loss of cells in the retina. Diagnosed at age 7, Kelm was essentially blind by age 35, a development that altered his life forever. Kelm, now 53, has been legally blind for more than two decades.

This didn’t stop him from pursuing his interests. Kelm became a certified martial arts instructor and ran his own studio for many years. And in spite of his condition, Kelm became a pastor and now helps people in Duluth, Minn. explore their spirituality.

Watch James Kelm see his wife for the first time using the Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System.

In 2014, Kelm heard about a new device that could help restore the vision of people living with RP. Though intrigued, he remained grounded.

“I’m a realist, and any time over your lifetime that you start looking at something as a magical solution, you find out usually that your hopes are dashed, and you become disappointed,” he said. “What you wind up doing is looking at reality without the possibility of magical solutions.”

Nevertheless, Kelm contacted the California-based device manufacturer to learn more.

The company, called Second Sight, developed the Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System. Using a pair of special glasses, a wearable computer and a wireless implant on the eye, the system could bypass James’ damaged photoreceptors, stimulate his remaining retina cells and create the perceptions of light – a huge advancement for someone who lived with blindness for decades.

After multiple appointments with University of Minnesota Ophthalmologists Sandra Montezuma, MD, and Dara Koozekanani, MD, PhD, our team determined that Kelm was an ideal candidate for the device. On March 10, 2015, Kelm was one of the first patients in Minnesota and relative few nationwide to undergo this pioneering procedure. His surgery was performed at Fairview Southdale Hospital.

Less than three weeks later, after a handful of post-operative appointments and device programming sessions, Kelm’s bionic eye was activated at University of Minnesota Medical Center in Minneapolis. For the first time ever, he saw his wife Kimberly and attending physicians.

The sight of his wife brought Kelm—and members of his care team—to tears.

“I don’t think I became really surprised until the last couple of days. Up to that point, it was like, ‘This is exciting,’ but there was that little voice that said, ‘keep it under wraps,’” Kelm said. “I think it was just this last time when I actually saw the glasses and went through the surgery that I said, ‘by Scottie, this is real.’”