Zlín surgeon restores patient’s sight after 53 years of blindness

Over the past 50 years artificial corneas have returned sight to more than a hundred eyes around the world. The last such operation carried out in the Czech Republic though was a landmark success in a pioneering field. Dr. Pavel Stodůlka of the Gemini clinic in the Moravian town of Zlín has succeeded in returning the eyesight of a man who had been completely blind for more than 50 years, probably the longest period of blindness from which a person has ever been cured. Earlier today, Dr. Stodůlka spoke to us about this extraordinary achievement.

“We have operated on a man who was blind for more than 50 years. His eyes were badly damaged from traumatic accident in which hot aluminium blew up in his face when he was 17. And we transplanted artificial corneas in his eyes and now he is able to see. What is kind of particular in our patient though is that he was blind for a very long time, and this may well be the longest case of acute blindness in the world that was cured.”

Pavel Stodůlka
And I understand his vision came back in stages; he began by seeing certain colours.

“Yes, that’s another specific feature of this particular patient; his vision is returning very slowly. It has taken several months, and the reason for that is that his brain has forgotten how to see after those long years of blindness.”

And so what is the quality of his vision now and what are the hopes for improvement? I suppose you can’t expect a complete, 100% recovery.

“Well actually, he is able to read. For regular reading he uses a magnifying glass, and he has read more than 300 pages since the operation. And with large lettering and good lighting conditions he is able to read a text without glasses or a magnifying glass. But on the other hand, because it’s so difficult for his brain, he cannot really orient himself spatially. He has problems identifying people faces. So it’s a really complex recovery, and the good thing is that he continues to progress.”

It’s unimaginable what it must have been like for both of you when he began to recover from the operation and find that he was able to see for the first time in 53 years. What was that experience like?

“Well we actually expected it to be more of a “wow moment” than it was – like with the first woman. She had been blind for 16 years and she was able to see her husband after those many years; she was able to see almost everything instantly. So that was something really emotionally unusual. But with this last patient, who was blind for more than 50 years, it was a slow recovery. He is very, very happy with that, and he is kind of a fighter, so he really struggles, he really puts a lot of energy into the process of learning to use his vision again. And this is the nice part of this story. He comes to see us regularly and we work together to help him see the world again. So we are really amazed by his ability to fight for his vision.”

Photo: www.lasik.cz
A question that occurs to me is, is the whole process of regaining one’s sight after so long really an entirely happy one? Is there not a strong element of shock?

Well it’s a kind of shock, but what we’ve seen in all of our patients up to now is that it has all been positive shock. They say that the world has changed considerably after all those years, that there are more colours around us. And just imagine: the last patient, when he went blind, there was no T.V., not even black-and-white T.V. He had never seen his wife, never seen his kids, his grandchildren. So, it is a lot of emotional stress on these people, that’s true.”