Laser Eye Surgery
“What was it like?” More than anything else, it was creepy.
… But worth it.
My first vision correction was prescribed in the midst of my high school years. I could see well enough to get around but with great effort and strain. By the time I got home from school, I had to take a long nap just to make it through the rest of the day. My eyes were exhausted and glasses fixed all that.
More than a decade later, I was ready to do almost anything to stop obsessively wiping the lenses of my glasses. Every tiny speck or smudge was loudly obtruding my attention, despite my my light-yet-necessary correct. Thin contact lenses were more comfortable but didn't correct for my astigmatism which left my eyes exhausted. Toric contacts were somewhat closer but the clarity would get disturbed by each blink which shifts the orientation of the lens.
While I grew to appreciate a fashionable frame of glasses, several thousand dollars seemed like a small price to pay to eliminate a constant source of stress in my life.
First day of my new life
December 6, 2012
My agenda for today:
- 9:45am Eyedrops
- 1:25pm Eyedrops
- 4:15pm Eyedrops
- 9:00pm Eyedrops
- 10:00pm Wipe my eyelids before bed
I recruit Tracy to be my ride and provider of moral support. After much research and preparation, it's not hard to avoid thinking about the details of tomorrow.
December 7, 2012
1:15pm We pull in to Dr. Furlong's facility in northern San Jose, CA. The friendly staff blaze through all the paperwork I've had a week to pre-read, and we begin the signing-athon.
“I understand that there is no guarantee of perfect vision” — check. “I understand that this is an elective surgery and there is no health reason to require this surgery” — check. “I am here for laser eye corrective surgery” — indeed.
I reveal my envelope holding a wad of $4,900 in cash that we agreed on earlier. “Would you like to take a mild sedative that will help you stay relaxed during the surgery and sleep after?” I accept the tiny sweet pill and hold it under my tongue while it slowly dissolves.
The receptionist leads Tracy and me over to the other waiting area, where we continue to wait for more minutes. The “No wifi or cellphones” sign draws attention to the thickened walls, probably leaded just in case. One of the technicians enters to take me in for “prep”.
I'm seated in yet another room as the technician turns on a little boom box dedicated to cheesy pop music. She prepares a eyedrops concoction of anti-biotics, numbing, and lubricants. After cleaning and disinfecting my eyes, we sit back and wait and listen to the cheerful music while the sedative starts to take effect. My thinking begins to fog, decisions become short-sighted, and my breathing is noticeably calmed. I make note of my changing internal state while anticipating the next room.
Finally, it's time. We walk through the unassuming door into the operating room. Spacious, with numerous utensils and machinery on the periphery, surrounding the centerpiece that is the chair. The chair is hospital-green leather, installed to recline and swivel between two laser machines. One machine makes the flap followed by the other which performs the prescribed correction.
Suddenly imagery of my childhood rushes in. Watching X-Files, alien abductions, brainwashing. When I was a kid, I thought brainwashing was the process of severing your scalp and immersing your brain in a special fluid. I imagined it:
“Anesthetic is applied, followed by pressure on the tip of the head as it's pulled into place with suction. You don't feel much but you know the top of the head is being sliced open, scalp peeled back, revealing the brain. It's floating peacefully in your head's natural cerebrospinal fluid until brainwashing begins. The anonymous figures in your periphery prod with instruments. Adjusting and correcting the physical matter of your parietal lobe while drowning the organ over with supplemental fluids to keep it lubricated and responsive. Results are verified and the scalp is replaced.”
Creepy. During my experience I was amused at how familiar it all felt to my bizarre science fiction imagery, but instead applied to my eyes.
“Before we get started, another quick eye check and I'm going to place some marks on your eyes to help the tracker,” another technician leads me to another chin rest. As with every other eye instrument, I fit my chin and forehead into the frame and look straight ahead. The numbing eyedrops are well in effect by now so I felt nothing as the man gently poked my eye with some kind of marker, once on either side of the iris.
All ready, off to the chair. I slide onto it and positioned my head to be in range of the pivoting radius. My neck feels cradled and comfortable. More numbing eyedrops wash over my eyes and my left eye is taped shut. I lay here waiting for Dr. Furlong for a few minutes as he wraps up with his previous patient. I hear subtle chatter as I stare towards the ceiling with one eye.
A familiar voice walks through the door and re-introduces himself. Dr. Furlong confirm that I'm here to get laser eye surgery and which kind-as if I would remember the subtle differences between the various generations of laser technology, CustomVue, Visx, WaveFront, something something something—“I guess,” I respond after a pregnant pause. Smiles all around, we proceed. “We're going to clamp your eyelids open. You have a very strong blink reflex, and while it's easier said than done, try to give into it the clamp as much as you can or else your eyelids are going to be extra sore tomorrow from fighting it.” This is the first instance of discomfort. Once the clamps are in place, it's easy to get distracted from them being there with everything else that goes on.
At every step, Dr. Furlong talks through what's happening, what will happen next, and what to expect. None of the discomfort was a surprise—I appreciate this.
After the clamps comes the suction, but no sooner than another slew of eyedrops. They place a tube-feeling thing around the iris which creates suction until your vision blanks out. This was possibly the most uncomfortable part of the process because the suction creates a lot of pressure on the eye, briefly bordering on pain, but simultaneously distracted by the complete loss of vision. It didn't feel so much as a fundamental loss of vision but more that my vision was obstructed, like when you close your eyes. With everything in place, I'm swivled under the flap-creating laser and told to try to stare at the subtle blinking orange light—the only thing I could see among my otherwise absence of vision.
The laser sounds like an old DOT MATRIX printer. Tra-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat. Within just a few seconds, maybe fifteen, it's done. I'm rotated slightly, the suction is removed and my watery vision returns. I'm sure more drops were applied as Dr. Furlong peeled back the flap of my cornea. You'd think this would be the worst part, but it's bizarrely interesting. It takes maybe 30-45 seconds to get the flap fully open which immediately changes my vision to a complete blur. Painless and too fascinating to delve on how creepy this is.
Suction is reapplied and I'm swiveled a few inches over to the corrective laser, again told to track the light. Ready? Tra-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat-dat. This is when you start smelling your flesh burning a bit—not a huge deal if you've ever had a root canal, or partook autocannibalism I suppose. With each laser burst, the peripheral of my vision glows in an ethereal light blue, lighter each time. Not sure what causes this effect, but it's like an unearthly aurora borealis inside my own eye. Within 25 seconds, it's over. “You did great!”
The pressure on my eye is released and the flap carefully peeled back into the covering position, this takes another half minute and ample eyedrops.
“You can gently close your eye now,” I comply and my freshly lasered eye is taped shut. Time for the other eye. Unsurprisingly, process for the left eye was essentially identical. (Fast forward a few minutes.)
“You can sit up now.” My legs dangle off the chair as I'm offered a kids juice to help ward off dizziness, primarily from anxiety. I can already see, well enough to walk around and get a final examination, but things are foggy rather than blurry. Dr. Furlong admires his work as he looks at my eyes through his microscope. “Excellent flaps.” We shake hands, I thank him, and I'm taken to the previous room where I'm given additional drops and care instructions. Tracy had the option to watch the surgery but opted to rejoin me in the post-op room instead. This is where they taped the silly goggles onto my face and gave me sunglasses to go over them. I'm warned that there is bruising on my eye but it will heal, that I would be extra sensitive to light, and that there would be discomfort and scratchy pain once the numbing eyedrops wear off. This was an understatement.
Tracy and I nod, pack up the supplies, and head home.
I'm pretty chipper on the walk back to the car—I could basically see already, but my mood quickly changes as the sun starts blaring through the car window while we drive home. Like a creature of the night, I hiss and try to hide from the light, but the scratchy pain and burning keep growing with each beam of light revealed while Tracy navigates the car towards home. Unsure of whether it's the light or just the numbing wearing off or both, I want to get home and hide in a very dark room as soon as possible.
The next hour or two suck the most, worse than the surgery itself. I take two tylenol, which I should have done earlier. Later, I apply the numbing eyedrops I was given, which I also should have done earlier too. Both of these things help. I apply the numbing drops just once more after another hour, but I should have applied them more frequently in retrospect.
Eventually I was able to fall asleep, and by the time three hours pass, I find myself pain-free. My eyes still feel swollen and achey, but it's much more manageable.
After waking up, I'm greeted with boredom but I was instructed to keep my eyes mostly closed for the rest of the night. So here I am, sitting in the dark, writing the first draft of this post, with my eyes closed.
Four months later
“Was it worth it?” Absolutely.
Today my eye sight is almost 20/15 and I'm down to ~3 lubricating eyedrops per day. Halos are not an issue anymore, though I'm still a little sensitive to light, like sunny days or oncoming traffic at night. Nothing intolerable and wearing sunglasses is much more enjoyable than corrective glasses. Overall, it feels like a significant source of stress from my life has been removed.
The procedure itself was creepy, but not painful or even that scary. I admit I was quite phobic about the whole flap thing, but after having gone through it I feel it wasn't anywhere as bad as I feared. And after the first couple of hours, the recovery was a breeze–just don't stinge on the numbing drops like I did.
“Should I get LASIK?” If you mind wearing glasses or contacts, and you can afford the pricetag, I highly recommend it. Especially if your prescription is reasonably weak, then there is much lower risk of needing a second touchup.