Conrad Otto was 10 years old when he started having issues with his vision.
The keen young rugby player and athlete from Mbombela in Mpumalanga was told that he had retinal detachment (see box below) in his left eye, which was affecting his sight. To add to his problems, his vision in his right eye was also poor for reasons that doctors couldn't explain.
He saw specialists and underwent three operations, but nothing helped.
“They tried to reattach the retina, seal off the blood veins and then a laser treatment, but it didn’t improve his sight,” his father Pieter says.
By age 11 the Bergland Primary School pupil was told there was nothing more that could be done, and his vision was so poor that he was declared legally blind.
It broke his parents' hearts.
“Conrad wanted to know why he can’t just be a normal boy. Why can’t he do normal things? Why did this happen to him?” his father recalls.
"We didn’t know what to do. Here is this young boy and suddenly his whole world was pulled out from under him."
But one thing that he and his wife Liza knew for sure was that they weren't going to stop looking until they found a way to help restore their son's vision.
And now, after months of searching, they are overjoyed to finally see Conrad (now 12) finally being able to do many of the things he once enjoyed.
Hope arrived in the form of a pair of high-tech eSight glasses, which were delivered earlier this month.
The miracle glasses, which are manufactured in Canada, can help people with poor vision and even those who are legally blind to see again.
In Conrad’s case, the glasses, which are distributed in South Africa by Cape Town-based company Editmicro, can help him to read and write unaided, and he’ll be able to go for walks with them and watch movies again.
The glasses use a cutting-edge camera, smart algorithms and high-resolution screens to maximise the visual information provided to the brain to naturally compensate for gaps in the user’s field of view, explains Kyle Williams of Editmicro.
“The brain has the amazing ability to fill in missing information. In the case of central vision loss, the eyes are missing information needed to complete a full image for the brain. The eSight device is able to increase the information the eyes capture and send to the brain, resulting in an improved image and improved vision,” he adds.
The device was named as one of Time magazine’s innovations of the year in 2017, and won the Health Tech Digital award for best wearable technology solution in 2019.
For the Otto family, the cutting-edge glasses offer the ray of hope they've so desperately been seeking. And best of all they arrived just before the new school year.
“The look on Conrad's face when I showed him the device I will never forget,” Pieter says.
"He was amazed at how well he could see in class and that he was able to see everything the other children see. He still needs to get the hang of the device but he is more positive about school than what I have seen in a very long time."
Conrad, who also has ADHD, has been seeing a clinical psychologist since he was in Grade 2, and he now also sees a social worker and another psychologist to discuss and deal with the loss of his vision.
Although his classmates and teachers did their best to assist him by taking notes for him and reading questions out loud during tests, he was struggling.
But no one knew just how bad Conrad was feeling until a teacher overheard a conversation he was having with a friend in which he admitted his blindness was making him feel suicidal.
“It was a shocker," says Pieter, a manager at a security company. "He's an outgoing person and to hear that from the teacher was devastating. To hear that he wants to commit suicide because he struggles to see . . . It was bad."
Compounding Conrad's anxiety was the fact his mother was declared legally blind after she was in a car crash seven years ago.
Doctors initially told her that her vision would recover after the crash, but it only worsened. She underwent surgery, but her injuries were too severe to reverse the damage to her retinas.
“Conrad was shocked. I know the only thing he said was, ‘How are we going to play together?’” Pieter says.
They reassured him that it would all work out.
Liza has avoided talking to her son about her own blindness, Pieter says, explaining that it’s too hard for her and she’s scared it might make things worse for him.
“I think she doesn’t know how to have that conversation. I think she tries to avoid having the conversation with him."
Liza also sustained a serious back injury in the crash and can’t be on her feet for extended periods. As a result of all her injuries, she has a caregiver who looks after her and helps with cooking and cleaning.
She wants to do more for her son, like cook and play with him, Pieter says, but she can’t because of her injuries.
But like her husband, she was determined to find a way to restore her son's vision.
Eventually the couple got in touch with Low Vision Optometrists in Randburg, who told them about the eSight glasses.
Last year they visited a family in Pretoria who are making use of the glasses so Conrad could get the chance to try them out.
“Conrad started crying when he put the glasses on because he could see everything clearly. He could read sentences from three metres away,” Pieter says.
But as the glasses cost R140 000 a pair, it took some financial juggling for the family, who already had to resort to selling two of their vehicles to pay Conrad’s medical bills.
The Ottos began a BackaBuddy crowdfunding campaign in August, and friends also helped them organise a benefit show featuring musician John Rock Prophet, who performed for free.
Through this they were able to raise R40 000 and an anonymous donor gave them another R105 000.
And now that Conrad has his glasses, his parents are looking forward to see how his life improves.
Despite all that Conrad has been through, he received a certificate of merit at school for mathematics and natural science last year. This year he has been selected for the first and second team rugby tour to KwaZulu-Natal in March.
“I take my hat off to my son because as an adult, I don’t I think I would’ve been able to deal with all the things he has,” Pieter says.
The retina is a light-sensitive layer of tissue located in the back of your eye. It is a key part of your version converting light that enters into your eye into electrical signals that your optic nerve sends to your brain which creates the images you see.
If there is retinal detachment, it means your retina has moved from its position which makes it hard for you to see.
- Flashes of light in your eyes
- Constant floaters
- Blurred vision
- Loss of peripheral vision