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Blind Hamilton mom gets a $5,500 glimpse of sons

Yvonne Felix literally could not believe her eyes.

For 40 minutes one day in April, the 31-year-old legally blind Hamilton woman was able to see again.

She could see the fresh faces of her two young boys and take a close look at her bearded, bespectacled husband Joe. She remembers examining an impressionist print on a wall “that I thought was ugly and actually realized it was quite nice.”

She was able to see that a red and blue paisley rug in her family room “looked awful” and she immediately took it to the basement.

Amazingly, she could even read type on a piece of paper.

Felix was trying out a prototype for an amazing visor called eSight, developed by an Ottawa high-tech company.

The device, which looks like a welder’s shield, is reminiscent of the eyewear worn by Geordi La Forge, the blind crew member of the Enterprise on Star Trek: The Next Generation. It’s outfitted with a high-definition camera that relays video images to screens inside the glasses that manipulate the pictures to make the most of whatever eyesight the wearer has left. The company plans to start selling the product early next year.

Felix has Stargardt’s disease, a hereditary condition that causes severe vision loss. Her eyesight is obscured by a large blind spot in each eye. She has a small amount of peripheral vision but can’t see detail.

She vividly remembers those 40 precious minutes, five months ago at her home that were, literally, like someone turning on a light.

“I was in a state of shock for the whole time. My blind spot had essentially disappeared,” she said. “I looked at my husband and I could see his face very clearly and I could see (two-month-old son) Thomas’s face clearly and I looked over and I could see (six-year-old) Noah’s face.”

At that moment she could see how much the boys looked like their dad — the same eyes and ears. As she took a deeper look at her husband, she realized she was really seeing him for the first time.

“When I got to see my husband. I was happy with what I saw. That was a good thing,” she said with a smile.

The most difficult part was having to take off the device. It gave her a degree of vision she’d not had since the age of seven, when she was diagnosed with Stargardt’s.

From there her vision steadily deteriorated until her mid-teens. When she was 16, she began attending the W. Ross Macdonald School for the Blind in Brantford.

She was always interested in the arts and later attended the Dundas Valley School of Art for three years.

These days, she works as an artist out of a studio on James Street North and has developed a special pendant of clustered, lenslike circles she’s selling to raise money to purchase the device. Pendants are available through www.yvonnefelixartwork.com.

The company says it plans to sell the eSight units for $5,500 each when full production kicks in early next year, but the goggles will likely cost a few thousand dollars more.

The technology was developed by entrepreneur Conrad Lewis, who is chair of the company.

Kevin Rankin, eSight president and CEO, says “in simplest terms it allows the user to get better use of their remaining photo receptors (cells in the retina) by manipulating the image to stimulate the photo receptors that remain.

“We provide an enhanced image that stimulates the remaining photo receptors.”

The company is continuing with testing and so far, has tried the technology on fewer than 100 people. Testing has shown the device can be helpful for those who suffer from macular degeneration, glaucoma, diabetic retinopathy, Leber’s disease, ocular albinism, and rod and cone dystrophy.

Rankin says he finds the work incredibly rewarding, as he and other employees get to witness people with severe visual impairment experience improved sight.

Felix plans to buy a visor as soon as possible. The thing she looks forward to the most is being able to read bedtime stories to her children.

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