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Churchey 'giving something back'

September 26, 2002|by MARLO BARNHART

marlob@herald-mail.com

Harold Churchey never went to medical school. Born legally blind, he struggled to get through the eighth grade.

But to the research surgeon and his team who placed an experimental retinal implant in the skull of the 74-year-old Sharpsburg man in February, Churchey is a valued member of their team.

Dr. Mark Humayun was Churchey's surgeon eight months ago when a permanent retinal prosthesis was implanted just behind his right ear.

Humayun, interviewed by telephone from his office at the University of Southern California, said he and the others at the Doheny Retina Institute in Southern California think of Churchey as much more than a test subject.

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"What Harold has done for this field is akin to the great feats of test pilots and astronauts who risk great danger to make advances," Humayun said.

Since 1992, Churchey has been undergoing painful tests and the surgery so others might have the chance to see.

"The Lord has blessed me for 74 years and this is my way of giving something back," Churchey said.

Stressing that Churchey didn't know what to expect, either 10 years ago or during this latest round of tests and procedures, Humayun said humanity owes him a great debt.

"If it wasn't for Harold and his loving nature, we would be years behind in this endeavor," said Humayun, associate director of research at USC. "Harold is a rare breed."

Churchey and his twin brother, Carroll, were born with retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that first reduces the sight to central or gun-barrel vision before taking it away entirely.

"My brother and I first went to the Wilmer Eye Institute in Baltimore in 1946 looking for help, but there wasn't any then," Churchey said.

They kept going back but no progress was being made in treatment of the condition.

Churchey got work in a factory and then as a dishwasher before the Maryland Workshop for the Blind set him up at the snack bar at the Washington County Courthouse in 1964. He managed that popular eating spot until he retired in the early 1990s.

In August 1992, Churchey's doctor at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore asked him if he would be interested in taking some tests and undergoing experimental surgery.

"I told him I had nothing to lose," Churchey said, understanding full well that the tests would be painful and most likely would not result in him regaining his sight.

Churchey's giving nature was reinforced when he and his wife, Eva, met a young boy in Pittsburgh who was undergoing the same tests as Churchey. That child had the same condition as Churchey and would face a life without sight unless a breakthrough in research could be made.

From then on, Churchey was determined.

During early experiments at Duke University, electrodes were floated on Churchey's eyes while he was awake. At one point, a computer chip designed to bypass the damaged rods and cones in Churchey's eye allowed him to see a white dot with spots on it.

When Humayun and the others involved in the study moved to California, they asked Churchey to continue with the project, and he has.

Last February, the device was implanted in Churchey's skull. It is hooked up to a small camera on a pair of glasses powered by a battery belt.

"While I'm wearing those glasses, I can distinguish day from night," Churchey said.

He and his wife went back to California on Wednesday for another round of tests and more training, all of which will continue monthly for a year and a half.

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