Lonely Planet Writer

Beautiful Hawaii wants to be bionic eye capital

Not content with its perfect weather, countless beaches, and spectacular canyons shadowed by volcanic peaks, Hawaii is now hoping to become a centre for pioneering bionic eye surgery.

Hawaii wants to become world's bionic eye capital.
Hawaii wants to become world’s bionic eye capital. Image by Look Into My Eyes / CC BY 2.0

Hawaii’s first bionic eye operation – carried out last March – allowed a previously blind 73-year-old woman from Honolulu to see light and objects after living in total darkness.

Late last month, the Eye Surgery Centre of Hawaii demonstrated for the first time just how successful the operation had been and is now hoping to attract visitors from around the world for the surgery.

They said they would be focusing in particular on attracting medical tourism from Asia, where the breakthrough procedure is not yet available.

Sheila Chamian, the research director of Retina Consultants of Hawaii, said: “It is a significant change and capability for a blind person, like our patient, to suddenly see light and to be able to make out objects.

“Recently, our patient was able to see the outline of another person wearing dark clothing when the person was by a window during daylight. This is phenomenal in her progress.”

The surgery involves an implanted device known as an Argus II, which allows patients with a specific condition called retinitis pigmentosa to use artificial vision to see.

The system bypasses damaged photoreceptors in the eye and sends video from a patient’s special glasses to a small wearable computer from where they are transmitted wirelessly to an antenna within the eye implant.

Dr Gregg Kokame, the surgeon who carried out the procedure, said: “We’re trying to make it more available in the Asia-Pacific region … [it] is not available anywhere in Asia. We’re the only place in the Pacific region that does the surgery.”

He said medical tourism had long been a goal for Hawai’i, which according to the latest monthly figures attracted over 660,000 visitors in November 2015.

The majority of the islands’ tourists come from the United States and Canada, with another 20% coming from Japan (122,840), and just over 86,761 from all other international markets combined.