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Legally blind man rediscovers wonder of sight

13 February, 2005 by Peter Verhoeven

BROCKTON Reclining in his black wheelchair Friday in his room at the Veterans Administration Hospital, Stephen Zardis gazed up at the tiled ceiling.

He had never noticed the electrical sockets there before.

That is because until about three months ago, Zardis had not been able to see them, or for that matter, anything or anyone at all in fine detail.

"Before this I had to rely on my auditory abilities to pick up identifications," Zardis said. "I was like in a very small cocoon."

Now he is like a butterfly winging about, drinking in the world thanks to a device mounted onto his eyeglasses called an Ocutech autofocus telescope.

The device enables him to have a limited field of vision in crisp detail, seeing things as close as 12 inches and beyond. All he has to do is aim the telescope, which is equipped with computers and an infrared sensor, at what he wants to see and the device puts it in focus for him.

"It's almost like a rebirth," Zardis said. "I can see the clouds in the sky. I can see a sunset. It's hard not to have heart palpitations all the time by experiencing the world again through a perception I had thought I had lost forever."

As Zardis describes his experiences, joy radiates from his brown eyes and a warm smile lights up his face.

Zardis, 57, of Brockton, has been legally blind since 1982. He is a Vietnam veteran and former social worker who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was 29. He has lived at the VA on Belmont Street for five years.

About three months ago, Dr. Lou Frank, chief of geriatrics and low vision with the New England Eye Institute, fitted Zardis with the Ocutech device. Zardis had previously used a different telescopic device that he had to focus manually. A quadriplegic who is paralyzed from the chest down and who has limited mobility and dexterity, Zardis found that technology hard to use.

"Because of his condition he had a great deal of difficulty," Frank said. "Taking it from a focused to an autofocus really allowed him to break through. It really set him free."

Frank said the technology does not restore a person's vision but instead is a rehabilitation technique.

"What we do with low vision devices is we take a person at their current level of vision and show them a better way to use it," he said.

The Ocutech autofocus telescope weighs less than 2.5 ounces. It uses computer controlled infrared sensors that measure focusing distance while another computer controls a miniature motor that moves the focusing lens into the proper position, according to the Ocutech Web site. The computers are equipped with special software to ensure accurate focus. Zardis wears a rechargeable battery pack strapped to his chest that powers the telescope.

At the time Frank fitted Zardis for the device, Zardis was bedridden due to his multiple sclerosis. Having a hard time getting the measurements he needed with Zardis lying prone, Frank climbed right up onto his patient's gurney.

"He was determined that he was going to get an accurate reading and he did," Zardis said. "I'll be grateful for the rest of my life for that."

The New England Eye Institute is contracted to work with the Boston-area Veterans Administration hospitals. Frank, who is also a veteran, takes particular pride in Zardis' case.

"He's a terrific example of someone who is obviously highly motivated, intelligent wants to continue to learn and do things," Frank said. "To be able to provide a device to anyone, not just veterans, who has that motivation, is a very important thing."

The first time Zardis strapped on his eyeglasses outfitted with the Ocutech, he entered a whole new world.

"You could hear and see the wonder on his face," Frank said.

After living more than 20 years in a blur, the first thing Zardis focused on was a wall clock in his room. The time was 3:50 p.m.

"It's hard to describe adequately to what it's like, to be in a blur and then have a precise image to look at," Zardis said. "The first time I experienced it, it about brought a tear to my eye. You don't know what you've lost until you've lost it, and it's been incredible."

Though he has not been able to see clearly for more than 20 years, that has not gotten in the way of Zardis' artistic pursuits. He is an abstract expressionist painter who works with acrylics. Since painting his first canvas in 1983, he has created 411 works of art, most which have been sold and the money donated to charity.

Zardis was introduced to painting by an art therapist. More than therapy, he said painting has been empowering.

"In my situation, my physical condition, I'm still able to do something that can make a fully capable person without any physical challenges stop and say, 'That's interesting,'" Zardis said.

In 1986 Zardis had a show to raise money for the victims of the Ethiopian famine. The proceeds from the sale of 17 paintings went the humanitarian organization CARES and fed 200 people for a year, he said.

"Sometimes I look at my hand and think 'Oh my gosh, there's still a lot of power in this hand.' The idea that it's able to help other people is amazing," Zardis said.

Due to variables of his fine motor coordination, Zardis said his art work is not as precise or detailed as he would like.

"The sum total of my abilities is far exceeded by my work," he said.

One painting that hangs in his room at the VA was done after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed his cousin Marianne MacFarlane at the World Trade Center in New York. The strokes of red, green and brown paint portray an intensity.

"It's not meant to be graphic," Zardis said. "It's almost a venting of my feelings for that day."

Another painting below it depicts a seascape with a yellow-orange sun and black bird flying above the white spray of the sea.

That piece was painted after Zardis learned a friend had terminal cancer.

"It's just a feeling," he said of the artwork.

Since being fitted with his Ocutech device, Zardis said he still cannot read books or the newspaper but is able to watch some television.

Conversations have taken on more feeling and intensity since he can now see the people with whom he is speaking, he said.

In 1999, Zardis was told his multiple sclerosis, which is a progressively degenerative disease, had reached an end stage.

"I'm still here, I feel great. I'm still able to do things," he said Friday.

Since having the shutters of his world thrown back open, Zardis has some plans about where he would like to go and what he would like to see, now that he again can.

"I'd love to go to a museum, an art museum. It's one of my favorite things to do," Zardis said. "And the ocean, just to sit on the shore and watch the boats sail by on a sunny day would be very nice."

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