A Whakatane woman is the first person in the Southern Hemisphere to have a real-life twinkle in her eye, after the 77-year-old received life-changing surgery to improve her vision by implanting a tiny telescope into her eye.

Ailsa Shaw of Whakatane began losing her sight 10 years ago, from end-stage, age-related macular degeneration, Tauranga Eye Specialists consultant ophthalmologist Dr Mike O'Rourke said.

Up until now, there was no hope; people had been told nothing could be done.

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"It's the most common cause of blindness of people over 50. They can't read, can't see faces, they can't watch TV," Dr O'Rourke said.

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Dr O'Rourke has been trying to get the CentraSight treatment programme, where a small telescope is inserted into the eye, to be available in New Zealand for six years.

"Up until now, there was no hope; people had been told nothing could be done.

"This was the first breakthrough in 20 years," he said.

Mrs Shaw is the first person outside of the UK and the US to have had the surgery. The procedure was performed by Dr O'Rourke on February 2.

"It is definitely life-changing," Mrs Shaw said.

"It's very nice, I can even look down to peel a potato now."

The surgery involved Dr O'Rourke making an incision into one of Mrs Shaw's eyes to put in the 4.4mm telescope implant.

"The key thing is you have to make a very big incision," Dr O'Rourke said. "It's a big thing, an ordinary cataract incision is only 2.4mm."

Ailsa Shaw is the first person outside of the UK and US to have had a tiny telescope implanted in her eye. Photo / George Novak
Ailsa Shaw is the first person outside of the UK and US to have had a tiny telescope implanted in her eye. Photo / George Novak

The eye then had nylon stitches where the incision was, but they were buried under the membrane and would not be noticed by Mrs Shaw.

Despite having performed many large incision surgeries in his time working in Zululand, Dr O'Rourke said he was terrified something would go wrong, because it was the first time he had conducted the surgery.

However Mrs Shaw was not worried, saying she "had complete faith in him".

Mrs Shaw was among the small number of people who were suitable candidates for the surgery. Patients need to come under a specific category of those with end-stage age-related macular degeneration and show they were capable of progressing through the rehabilitation stage.

Patients need to train the brain to be able to switch from using one eye to the other, as they must combine their peripheral vision from one eye, with the image seen from the eye with the telescope implant.

"Some people find it impossible to use just one eye," Dr O'Rourke said.

Langford Callard optometrist Lynley Smith, who has been working with Mrs Shaw post-surgery, said it would be easy to not use the telescope implant to its potential, by reverting to using the other eye.

But Mrs Shaw always did her homework, Mrs Smith said.

"She's wonderful and motivated."

Mrs Shaw said it had been a challenge, but now she was looking forward to getting back into gardening, embroidery and golf, activities which she had to give up due to her sight loss.

"Now I have a permanently sparkly eye," Mrs Shaw said, in reference to the telescope implant.

"Or a twinkle in your eye," Mrs Smith said.

CentraSight programme:

* To be eligible for the CentraSight programme, patients with end-stage, age-related macular degeneration must be over 55, have bilateral vision loss in both eyes, and have no other diseases in the eyes.

* The cost of the telescope implant alone is $19,500 and is estimated to be $30,000 in total.