CHEYENNE – Sven Sansa went grocery shopping last weekend. He went to church the following day.
These sound like mundane activities, but to Sven, they were all-new experiences. Of course, he has bought groceries and listened to church sermons – but never when he could read the labels or see the pastor’s face.
Sven was born with rod-cone dystrophy, an eye disease involving damaged rod and cone photoreceptors that can become worse over time.
He received an eSight device around Sept. 1. Sven and his mother, Jennifer Heater, finished raising $10,000 for the device on Aug. 28 after an article was published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle about his need.
Sven said he first wore the device, which resembles virtual reality gear, to King Soopers for the family’s weekly grocery shopping that Saturday morning.
“I was trying to read the signs – the ones that tell you what’s in the aisle,” he said.
Sven can’t read those signs without the eSight device. In fact, Heater said even with a pair of glasses, Sven can see only about 6 feet in front of him.
That Saturday, he helped her pick out groceries, which he couldn’t previously do.
“He could see it. He didn’t have to get so close to it to see the cans or the boxes,” she said.
Sven said it made him feel more confident.
“It was different – kind of weird,” he said.
Sven’s new experiences continued at Unitarian Universalist Church’s morning service that Sunday. Heater and Sven usually sit right up front during the service, but he still can’t see very well.
On Sunday, they sat closer to the back of the congregation and listened to Pastor Hannah Roberts Villnave speak. Not only could Sven make out her facial expressions, he could see the checkered pattern on the shirt she wore.
Heater added, “The people at the church said he was a lot more animated than they’ve ever seen him before.”
She explained that without the eSight device, Sven has to be a foot away from a person to see their facial expressions. That’s not generally something he can do because most people don’t appreciate the proximity.
Sven said it’s easier to communicate when he can see a person’s facial expressions.
“I feel more engaged, like I actually understand more of what they’re talking about because I can see what they’re saying,” Sven said.
But it’s a bit of a learning curve, because he doesn’t have experience gauging emotions through facial expressions. He’s never been able to see the expressions to match them to emotions.
The eSight helps Sven pick up on a lot of minor details most people take for granted.
Heater said, “There is a lot of, ‘Oh, look! I can see this! I can see that! I can see your face from across the room, and you’re smiling. I can see your eyes. I can see your eye color.’” Previously, he couldn’t make out anyone’s eye color.
“It’s definitely going to change my life, because I’m going to be able to see more than I used to be able to see,” Sven said.
“And I think it will help me be more independent. I can go out, and I can actually read the menu at a restaurant without having to have somebody read it to me.”
He went to dinner at Guadalajara with his grandparents Thursday night. He ordered the chicken flautas without any help.
Heater said when Sven goes on school trips and they stop at fast-food restaurants, he usually orders the same thing the person in front of him ordered because he doesn’t want to ask someone to read the entire menu to him.
Sven said the biggest change the eSight is bringing him is the ability to see in the dark. His vision is so poor that he has no night vision.
The eSight device has a built-in flashlight. Between that and the screen, he can finally find his way in the dark on his own.
Heater said, “He would usually hold onto my arm when we would go to the neighbor’s. We water their lawn at night when they’re gone. He was like halfway down the block where usually he would be right by me and holding onto my arm.”
Sven doesn’t wear the eSight all the time. He’s been wearing it for an hour or two a day and plans to work up to wearing it throughout school and when he leaves the house.
He said it starts to hurt a bit after he wears it a while, which is when he decides to take it off. Additionally, Sven said wearing the eSight device is sort of like looking through a video camera all the time.
Sven hasn’t worn it much at school yet. He’s a sophomore at Cheyenne’s Central High. But Kyle Brightman, who teaches Sven’s second period world geography class, explained the device to Sven’s classmates Friday.
Sven said he briefly wore them in class for the explanation. “I was able to see everything better. I could read the stuff that’s up on the wall – the posters they have up in the room.” He added it will be easier to pay attention.
Geography is a fairly visual subject, and Brightman said it can be difficult for people with good vision to see the lines on maps. He added that he has to alter some assignments for Sven, but might not with the eSight.
“It will be interesting to see how I can help him with those and what else I can do with him using those. I think it will bring him a sense of normalcy,” Brightman said.
Before receiving the device, Sven said he was most excited to finally watch a live football game. At the time, he wasn’t particular about what game, but now that watching one is possible, he’s got his heart set on seeing the Denver Broncos play.
He watches them on TV sometimes, but he’s always had to be very close to see the game, even on the television. With his eSight device, Sven could attend a game and see his favorite team play in person.
Heater said she also is thinking about taking him to see the Grand Canyon, which he visited over the summer with her parents.
“He said, ‘We have to go back now because it was pretty cool, but I read it’s even cooler if you can see it.’”