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Search for Paradise; a Patient's Account of the Artificial Vision Experiment

by Jens Naumann



 Photo of Jens Naumann
Picture of Jens Naumann playing his guitar.



I wrote a book, 579 pages long.  It really happened, every word of it.  I wrote it because if I didn't, I felt something very important would be forgotten.

Search for Paradise, so the title reads. What is this paradise? 

My life as a young boy is normal enough. I grow up as an immigrant to Canada; learn English in grade 1 while dreaming of things most boys dream about.  I want to be a fireman, and then a truck driver, then an airline pilot, play with Meccano and hike in the woods with my father on weekends.  School finishes, then I start a job as laborer, enjoying my freedom of living away from my parents and owning a car.

But then something happens: I lose my left eye as a piece of steel flies into it during work.  I re-adjust to one eye, not too difficult but the world looks a bit smaller; worst of all, I only have one chance left.

Three years pass, I marry, and begin to enjoy family life with my first child; I found my paradise.

Then the worst happens.  I lose my other eye; another piece of metal takes it away.  My World is gone as I knew it, the darkness forever pressing, my career gone.  I want to keep my family and don't let depression take its toll, but it is so hard.  I retrain as piano technician, trying to learn to appreciate the dark, colorless world.  But all the while I dream of seeing again... if only I could return to my paradise I left behind. 

I work on new skills, learning to play the piano, fix automobiles, even run a farm from my self invented method of driving a tractor.  All the while I hear reports from media that maybe some day researchers, whoever they are, will perfect the idea of hooking a computer to the brain of a blind person so he can see.  If it did happen, I wonder, would I ever get in before my life is over?

Seventeen years later, my friend phones me and tells me of a website where a New York doctor is looking for first patients to try a prototype artificial vision system where a computer is hooked to the brain.  I check it out and sure enough, it is real.  I apply; crossing my fingers I'll be noticed.  I was the first patient to come into the program.

I paid the fee which could have bought a new house, and met Dr. William H. Dobelle for the first time, in Portugal where the operation would be conducted.  His office seemed impressive, as did his team of neuro-surgeons.  I had the operation April 8 2002, a very painful one where I didn't know I'd survive at first.  My scalp had been all pulled off the back of my head, a hole the size of a playing card opened in my head, electrodes inserted, and all closed back up, with two electrical connectors the size of quarters on top of my head.  It hurt badly.

Then a few weeks later I came to New York to be connected to the computer.  At first nothing worked, then slowly I began to see a bit of light, flashes, not as much as I wanted, that is for sure.  I could just walk a bit around the office avoiding chairs in my way when Dr. Dobelle told me to drive a car he had parked behind the large building housing the office.  So I did, and with some real innovative guessing as to what the little dots of light meant, I pulled it off without wrecking the car.  CNN News caught this and posted it on the ASAIO June 13 2002 meeting in Manhattan. 

Dobelle hired me as Patient Rep, so I worked with the fifteen other patients to help develop the system further.  Training was important, as was the system setup where each patient needed to tell engineers everything they saw and where.  It was a tough go, but it worked.  I took my system home to Canada for Christmas 2002, and it was wonderful.  I could see all the Christmas lights on houses, the outlines of my kids, the town where I lived for the first time in the scattered dot-matrix image of the system.  But Dr. Dobelle was getting sick.  I noticed he didn't work much at the office now.  The system had some problems we wanted to fix on the next system, and then Dr. Dobelle passed away October 5 2004.  So did the project.  Dobelle did not write medical journals on his project, so the scientific community did not recognize the merits of his work. 

Then I was back in the dark.  No more artificial vision, as FDA refused to allow anyone else to work on it; they saw it as a problem experiment.  I realized that when I had dreamed of seeing again, I never thought to attach permanence to the dream... my dream came true, but then I awoke.  The paradise was gone once again; maybe this time forever.

I looked for something to see me through this very tough time, hoping to get a job not in self employment, but with a team, like I had working with Dobelle.  But in my country the blind must stay blind and poor, or so it seemed to me; and I could not get into the workforce, no matter how I tried.

I found a small International Development school in the USA looking for workers in Mozambique, they claim they'd take anyone fit to travel.  I put their policy to the test and wrote of my loss and my accomplishments, and I was accepted with open arms.  Six months of training and learning a new language, I was in Lamego, Mozambique, teaching English, French, Music and computers to classes of young adults, some of whom were blind, the skills to prepare them as elementary school teachers.  For the next three years I was in and out of Mozambique, its culture and society so accommodating to people with disabilities I even forgot about my blindness.  I returned to Canada and had the electrical connectors taken out of my head as they were beginning to infect badly. 

The book I wrote in 2012 tells of everything about artificial vision, as well as how to live without it.  I hope you get a chance to live my adventure by reading it.

Jens Naumann
Email; jensnaumann8@gmail.com

This article was received on 23rd June 2014




External links connected to this story.


WARNING: the following video link shows a few small scenes of actual brain surgery and therefore may not suitable for viewing by young people under the age of 18 or those of a nervous disposition.
Intro to my story, 6 minutes, part of Discover Channel January 2003.

WARNING: the following video link shows actual brain surgery and therefore may not suitable for viewing by young people under the age of 18 or those of a nervous disposition.
Full 45 minute Discovery Channel, including surgery scenes of patient #13 (Karen) and details of Dr. Dobelle's involvement in the project.

CNN News June 13 2002 Jens driving car at ASAIO
(American Society of Artificial Internal Organs).

Xlibiris publisher book site for purchase.

Amizon.com book to purchase with reviews.

Pictures of Jens wearing vision system; these pictures are also in the book.

Jens as guest speaker for Kiwanis speaking on the power of
contributing May 2014.




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