Image courtesy VCU Medical Center
For most of his career, Henry Pusey worked side by side with his wife, Sallie, in the field of mechanical engineering.
"They used to call us the matriarch and patriarch of shock and vibration," Pusey, 85, boasts before reciting a list of accolades they earned in almost 40 years. "Everybody in this business knows Sallie and me."
During a routine ophthalmology exam in the early 1990s, he was diagnosed with macular degeneration. The chronic eye disease that causes sight loss in the center of the field of vision is marked by deterioration of the macula, which is the center of the retina. It starts with vision loss in one eye and can eventually lead to total blindness.
"Toward the end, she became my eyes," Pusey says of his wife and business partner. "Sallie was my good right arm."
Sallie died in the couple's Winchester home on Jan. 2. Without the aid of his wife, the legally blind engineer suddenly faced a blurred, disorienting world alone. He worried that he might be unable to live independently and continue his work.
On Feb. 12, Pusey became the first Virginia resident to undergo a breakthrough telescopic eye-implant surgery designed to reduce the impact of the blind spot caused by end-stage macular degeneration. Dr. William Benson, chairman of the VCU Health System's ophthalmology department, was the first in the state to perform the surgery, approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2010.
The telescope works like the telephoto lens of a camera. The micro-optical technology uses wide-angle lenses to magnify objects in a patient's central vision and project them onto the healthy area of the retina. "It expands the area of the retina that can be used to provide functional vision," Benson says.
During a procedure performed much like cataract surgery, doctors remove the eye's natural lens and replace it with the telescopic device, which is smaller than a pea.
Until now, advanced macular degeneration patients' options were limited to handheld magnifying glasses and telescopic glasses that sometimes caused tunnel vision. "We hope the telescope provides functional vision so patients can become self-sufficient and strive toward more independence, which is the desire of any elderly patient," Benson says.
Although the surgery could have wide-reaching effects for the more than 1.75 million Americans who suffer from macular degeneration, he cautions that it is not for everyone.
"It's all about the pre-operative screening," he says. The testing includes working with a prototype telescope that operates in the same way as the implanted device. The technology divides vision into a telescope eye that sees things centrally and a non-telescope eye that sees peripherally. If a patient's brain is unable to merge the two images, the device will not be effective.
"It is a process of re-learning how to see," Pusey says, adding that he is now training himself how to read by moving his eye along a line of text and picking out a letter at a time. For most patients, post-surgery rehabilitation will take six months to a year. He says the rehabilitative work is worth his independence.
"I'm already seeing things I haven't seen in years," he says. "I feel like I'm making progress." In addition to continuing to organize and lecture at mechanical engineering conferences around the country, Pusey recently started working on an autobiography, and while he plans to focus the account on his career, he says it will undoubtedly detail a lifetime of memories with Sallie. "I miss her terribly," he says.