Blind Marine uses UPMC-tested tongue device to “see”

By Lindsay Carroll

Cpl. Mike Jernigan has a cool pair of sunglasses.

They complement his sharply pressed black uniform, which is covered with badges and decorations. They also help him see.

The retired Marine, who lost his sight while fighting in Iraq, slipped on the sunglasses in front of the audience at a news conference Thursday morning. He scanned white paper shapes that retired Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock attached to black posterboard and methodically moved his head up and down.

“Mike, what do you see?” Pollock asked.

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Jernigan paused. Then, he confidently pointed his right arm to the right. He saw a downward-pointed arrow.

Pollock rearranged the shapes. She formed a horizontal line, an upward arrow and a diagonal line. The corporal identified all of them.

He could see with his tongue.

The pair of sunglasses — a device called the BrainPort, made by Wicab Inc. — had a camera attached to the middle of the frames.

The camera transmitted images through a wire onto a small panel upon which Jernigan placed his tongue. Tiny electrodes rose on the panel in accordance with the degrees of light reflected by the image.

After training with Pollock, a former surgeon general for the Army, and other staff members at UPMC, Jernigan learned how to interpret electric signals sent from the camera to the panel. Pollock said the signals feel like champagne bubbles.

When Jernigan removed his sunglasses, the audience could see where his eyes used to be — his left eye was pasted shut with a reddish scar, and his right eye was slit to reveal the blackness behind the lid.

In August of 2004, Jernigan was on patrol in Mahmudiyah, located in Iraq’s Anbar province, when a roadside bomb blew up his Humvee.

He woke up in a hospital bed. The doctors reconstructed his right hand, removed the shrapnel in his left knee and put an acrylic plate in his forehead because his skull had caved in.

When he awoke, Jernigan realized he had lost his eyes.

“I returned from Iraq, and they gave me a stick,” he said. “I felt my life was over.”

Five years later, the 30-year-old corporal started testing new products with the Center of Vision Restoration at UPMC, which held the news conference along with Pitt to announce a $3 million donation from retired metals trader and Pitt alumnus, Louis Fox.

Fox, who lost much of his eyesight during the past 10 years because of a rare retinal disease, donated the money after hearing about the center’s work, which includes discovering cures and therapies for blindness and vision impairment. Because of Fox’s donation, the center will be renamed the Louis J. Fox Center of Vision Restoration.

After spending time flying his airplane, traveling and sailing, blindness didn’t seem acceptable, Fox said.

“The word ‘no’ is not a word I like,” Fox said. “I didn’t understand that they didn’t have a cure, a fix.”

Fox, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Pitt, said he never imagined himself losing his eyesight.

“I never thought, almost 50 years ago when I was a freshman at Pitt, that what would happen to me would happen to me,” he said.

Fox said that through his work with the center, he was able to meet people who shared his determination to find a solution. He said the experience was helpful, because not being able to drive, fly and see his family without difficultly felt overwhelming.

Pollock, the executive director of the Center of Vision Restoration, said 80 percent of those with vision loss suffer from chronic depression.

“Unfortunately, in the past, they’ve never been offered hope,” she said. “It’s not acceptable for the vision-impaired to wait years for technology to translate to tools for everyday use.”

Jernigan said he owed a lot of his hope to the rehabilitation he’s received.

He has started working on moving the device to the “next generation,” meaning developing the technology for everyday use, such as while walking.

Jernigan, now a student at Georgetown University, got married a couple of months ago. He’s never seen his wife or his new son, but he said the BrainPort can help him “see” the outlines of the faces and bodies of his family.

“I was a hard charger,” he said. “I volunteered for this job. I knew the risk I took.”