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Second Sight


Chris Cerna will never forget the day he decided to find his own way down the steps after a rehearsal with the Pearl City High School band. He promptly fell off the stage and landed on his tuba. His memory of the instructor's response ("How's the tuba?") elicits laughter.

He now lets people lead him to and from stage performances, and doesn't hesitate to ask into his microphone, "Is there a chair?" His lighthearted approach has sustained him on a difficult journey. The 22-year-old has been blind since he was 18 months old, when cancer of the retina forced doctors to remove his eyes.

Through the Aloha Medical Mission-physicians who volunteer to treat patients in underserved areas-9-year-old Chris and his mother traveled from the Philippines to see Honolulu ophthalmologist Dr. Jorge Camara. Camara reconstructed the boy's eye sockets with sophisticated ocular implants. The result was a dramatic change in his appearance. And his life.

Cerna became an Eagle Scout and is now studying music at the University of Hawai'i. He has released seven CDs, with three original compositions on each. Two more CDs are due this fall. He's proficient ("efficient," he corrects, with a smile) on 11 instruments, including the mandolin. Conversations halt at Macy's Ala Moana every Saturday, when he plays pop, classical and jazz on the piano, with his mother and canine companion, Gib, by his side. He also performs regularly with his bluegrass band.

It all began after Cerna's identical twin brother, Chuck, died of cancer of the retina before the boys turned five. Chuck had possessed the musical aptitude; Chris had shown no interest.

However, some kind of spiritual awakening occurred at his brother's funeral. "My relatives told me to go up to him and ask him for his talent," recalls Chris. Nine months after Chuck died, Chris sat down at the piano and played his brother's favorite songs-without formal training or the ability to read music. He performed his first concert in front of 700 people at age 7.

"Everyone thinks Chris is a genius; he's just so gifted," says Dave Langen, a retired music teacher who taught Cerna guitar at Pearl City High School. Langen admits he tried out for Cerna's jazz band, but didn't make the cut. Camara, an accomplished pianist himself, calls Cerna a virtuoso, who has mastered Chopin pieces that rank among the most difficult to play.

When asked what music means to him, Cerna chuckles at reducing something so luminous in his life to mere words. "It's almost like the air I breathe," he says. "It's how I express myself. It's how I communicate with other people."

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Honolulu Magazine February 2018
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