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Education, World Relations

FUN WITH LASERS: Interviews with Lasik and PRK Patients

By Seana Sperling

I began hearing about Lasik in late 1999. I was at a party and two women were wearing dark glasses. Naturally I had to ask why and they said they had gone through Lasik surgery just two days before and their eyes were still extremely light sensitive. Aside from their fashion statement, they were ecstatic about their vision, which was close to 20/20 and practically improving by the hour.

They said they had gone to Canada because the price of surgery north of the border tends to be much cheaper. ($2000.00 or $3000.00 cheaper.) Also, Canadian doctors have been performing the operation for over eleven years while it was still relatively new in the U.S. They had also received a partner/buddy discount ($100.00 each) for doing the surgery as a pair. At first, the idea of Discount Surgery made me a little uncomfortable. Was there also some sort of free gift–compliments of Fingerhut?

A friend of mine (we’ll call him Mark) and I started gathering research on Lasik Surgery in the summer of 2000. Since Mark is a doctor, he was very thorough in his research and contributed reams of paper to my growing stack. The consensus seemed to be a high success rate with a minute risk factor. We were still apprehensive.

My main worry was of becoming blind from the operation. I was told by several staff and two different surgeons that the chances of the actual surgery causing blindness are nil, however, the very few cases of blindness that have occurred, were caused by post-operative infection. According to one of the doctors, one patient mowed his lawn a couple of days after the surgery and this resulted in an infection. (The surgeons now counter this possibility by giving all patients anti-bacterial drops as a preventative measure.)

Unfortunately, Mark had to leave to do his Residency in Michigan, so the mission was put on hiatus. Later that year, I started thinking about it again, so at my friend Joe’s birthday party I brought it up. Joe and I decided to make an appointment. The buddy-package was $975.00 each person–both eyes. I paid for additional insurance, which was about $50.00, bringing my total to $1024.00. (You pay in advance in either one or two installments by credit card.)

When we went through the pre-operative appointment they checked our vision and the thickness of our corneas. (If the corneas are too thin a different procedure is required—the really scary one—see PRK.) They dilated our eyes and checked for any viruses or infections. After they finished inspecting and questioning, I was told I was a candidate for Lasik–not a great one, but a candidate. Joe was told he would walk out of the clinic with 20/20 vision. His corneas were evidently like slices of ham.

I was a little disappointed. My initial impression was that I would emerge from the clinic with perfect vision. From the consultation I found that the success rate varied, depending on the degree of the problem to be corrected. My prescription is fairly strong, minus seven in one eye and minus 5.25 in the other. In my case, the best vision they could promise me was 20/40, which is good enough to drive, but not to read, write or do detailed work. I’d be wearing glasses most of the time.

I decided against the operation and they promised to refund all of the $1024.00 I had paid. (They refund by check two weeks from the cancellation date. My refund arrived about four days late, but it was December, so I’m sure the holidays had slowed the postal system.) I opted out partially out of fear, but also because I get too frustrated if I can’t see well. The movie “Seven,” made me crazy because of the horrible lighting. What would I do if everything was, “just a little hard to see.”

Joe decided to have the surgery. I felt a mixture of jealousy and relief. I was relieved that I didn’t have to put my eyes through the stress, but a little jealous that my sight really didn’t have that much promise. I tagged along anyway.

When first hearing about the Clinic, I imagined several white, low-rise buildings in a rural setting where the light-sensitive patients could stumble around the grounds. The reality was a building the size of a Denny’s, buried amidst strip malls and pizza parlors. Where were the white-caned patients to stroll for their afternoon exercise?

It was around 1:00PM and the receptionist at the Clinic told us that Joe’s surgery would be over around 2:00PM or later because they were a little “behind.” We left Joe and headed to the nearby mall to kill some time. We returned about 2:15PM. As we pulled into the driveway, our hero emerged from the clinic wearing a pair of humungous, protective-eye-shades reminding me of the black and white film “The Fly.” Joe was in and out in so little time that Chris and I were half an hour late in picking him up.

Joe: First there was paperwork. They’re kind of mechanical with their questions, but very thorough. It’s like the same procedure we went through at the pre-operative exam. After that, they take you to a big room and lay you on a narrow table under a big machine. It kind of reminds me of a CAT Scan. It was a lot more uncomfortable than I’d expected. It’s painful when they pull your eyelids back with the spectrum, but it’s also painful when they’re doing the suction on the eyeball. It feels like your eyeball is being pinched all the way around and you have to stare at a light. Although it’s only 30 or 60 seconds an eye, it seems like an eternity. The smell of burning flesh is intense. I started getting slightly nauseated during the surgery.

The worst thing is that you have to watch it. You can’t help but watch it. There’s a flashing red light and you can see them pulling the flap back. You see them pull a piece of your eye off. Then they take something like a squeegee, and squeegee it back on. And you can’t blink. I turned down the sedative and now I’m sorry that I did. I would recommend taking it.

Afterwards, they guide you by the hand out of the room and you’re stumbling around in the dark and everything is really blurry. They put you in a dark room with other people. Of course when I got there, all four chairs were full, so I sat in an examination chair for a few minutes. Then one opened up and I sat in a comfortable leather chair. I was there for about ten minutes and then they came and shined a bright light in my eyes, which is kind of painful, but they were checking to make sure there were no folds and that everything was in place. Then they lead me out to the waiting room. It’s a very scary, freaky experience when you go in there even though they are very nice and professional.

Q: So how is your vision after surgery?

Joe: The right eye seems to be different than the left. I did experience more pain with my left eye even though they did it second. Everything is kind of hazy and my eyes are extremely light sensitive right now.

Q: What kind of pain?

Joe: You know how when you get soap in your eyes, it stings? Or when you sleep in your contacts and you wake up with them adhered to your eyes? They are itchy, like I have a hair in my eye or something. Everything seems really bright, but I have better focus now than usual.

Q: Would you have the surgery again? A Retouch? (These are sometimes necessary after a couple of years.)

Joe: Uh, well. Ask me tomorrow.

He kept talking about halos and I was wondering if he was seeing auras or something. Then I started worrying about my own aura. If someone could actually see it, what would it reveal? We returned to the mall after nightfall and in an episode of synchronicity, there was a kiosk that gave aura readings via computer. I couldn’t talk Joe or Chris into trying it though.

The next morning
Joe: I feel fine, my eyes feel really good. There was a little crusty stuff around my eyelashes, but that’s probably from the drops. My sight is better today than it is with my glasses. My eyes are a little bit dry, but no more discomfort than if I were wearing contacts. I’m not light sensitive in here, but I imagine I will be outside. It might be better or it might be that it’s not like looking through glasses or contacts because there’s no light refraction.

We were half an hour early for the follow-up in the morning and they got Joe right in.
After a few minutes, Joe walked out swinging a stainless steel coffee mug with the Clinic’s logo on it.

Joe: The doctor had me read the eye chart again and as I thought, my right eye is not as good as the left eye. My right eye is about 20/30 and the left is 20/20. The doctor looked at my eyes and said there was a little bit of swelling and hemorrhaging in each eye, but that was normal. Then he gave me my thousand dollar coffee mug and sent me on my way. It took all of two minutes.

Q: Would you do a Retouch?

Joe: Maybe I’d do a Retouch. Yeah, I probably would.

A week later
Joe returned for another post-operative exam. (Three are required.) He said that his eyesight had been fluctuating as they told him it would, and he had 25/20 vision in his eyes individually, but combined, he had 20/20 vision and no discomfort.
A month later
At his last post-operative exam Joe’s vision was 20/15. What’s next X-ray vision?
The body can withstand a lot of pain and fortunately, the memory doesn’t retain the intensity, otherwise women would never have more than one child, people would never fall in love more than once and piercing shops would have no repeat business.


CAVEAT — PRK Surgery
I was outside of my workplace waiting for Joe to pick me up to go to the satellite clinic for the pre-operative exam. A friend of a friend, Alexandra, walked by. She looked at the Clinic’s brochure in my hand and asked, “Are you thinking about having eye surgery?”
“Yeah,” I said, “I’m going to my pre-operative appointment in a few minutes. Do you know anything about it?”
“I’ve had it.”
I looked at her eyes. “But you’re wearing contacts.”
“That’s right.”
“What happened?”
“You don’t want to know right now.”
Just then Joe pulled up, and in my daze I crawled into the car and we sped off to the clinic.

Alexandra’s story:
In 1999 Alexandra also underwent surgery on her eyes, but she had the PRK, which is different than Lasik. The PRK is a much more radical surgery. You must go through all the same trauma except there is no flap to pull back and they must abrade the lense through the cornea. It is also more painful than Lasik and the healing process is longer. The care is also a little different. After this type of surgery, they place bandage-contact-lenses over each eye until the cornea regenerates.

Alexandra had some complications. After the surgery, her eyes were healing at an accelerated rate, so the technician decided that it would be OK to remove the bandage-contact-lenses a couple days early as this would save her a trip back to the clinic. (Generally the bandage contacts are removed after three days.)

After several days of pain and cloudy vision, Alexandra contacted the clinic. A doctor traveled halfway from Canada to meet her and replaced the contact-bandages in the bathroom of a fast food restaurant. Her eyes healed, but her vision was not 20/20. For the past two years, the clinic has tried to compensate her with several different prescriptions of contact lenses and glasses and paid for her hotel and travel expenses anytime she’s had to come back to Canada. Her vision at this point is improved, but she is still wearing glasses or contacts for the majority of the time.

PRK Surgery—A Positive Experience
In March 2000, my housemate traveled to Canada for eye surgery. Because of his thin corneas, he had to have PRK. When he returned, he looked miserable. I asked him if he would recommend PRK and he said, “No! Definitely not! It was like Nazi torture!” He said that after his surgery, he was incapacitated for the remainder of that day. Then he retired to his room. He also had some complications. After surgery, they placed the bandage-contact-lenses over his eyes. A day or so later, one of his bandage-contact-lenses started coming off. He thinks he bumped his eye while he was sleeping, disturbing the lense. Until that was corrected he experienced additional pain. The satellite clinic corrected the problem and then he was fine.

After a few days, I asked him about his sight and he said that things were hazy or fuzzy still, but that it seemed to be improving and the doctors had told him to be patient because he needed some time for his sight to adjust. Six months later, he was very happy with his vision, which is 20/20 now. He had a very strong prescription like mine but the PRK seemed to work. I asked him if he would have the surgery again and he said, “Definitely. I’ve always thought of myself as a guy who wears glasses, but now I’m a guy who doesn’t wear glasses.”

CARE: After the operation, the doctor will instruct you how to use the antibiotic drops, as well as saline drops. Plastic caps need to be taped over your eyes for sleeping so you won’t rub your eyes and these are provided by the clinic. Suggestions for discomfort: Cold compresses, dark rooms, rest, Tylenol. (Beware of caffeinated Tylenol in Canada.)

About Seana Sperling

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