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Through the Writer's Eyes

Reporter David Winkler-Schmit recounts his Lasik eye surgery experience.

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Prior to a major surgery, many people pause a moment to take stock of their lives — a review of where they've been and where they hope to go — right before they go under the knife. That's what I do as I sit next to my wife, Beth, in the Eye Laser Institute, waiting for my name to be called for Lasik surgery. OK, it's not really major surgery; it only takes about 15 minutes, and there's no scalpel involved. Still, I am trying to think about how I got here: It all starts with baseball. In my rookie year in Little League, the only way I made it to first base was if the pitcher hit me with the ball. Standing in the batter's box, I was a perplexed 8-year-old who wondered how could anyone see the baseball when it was so small and moving so fast? Not much later, I was fitted with a pair of thick glasses with stylish, owl-size frames. I refused to wear them, and for much of elementary school, I was a highly skilled squinter, sometimes even applying the little-known maneuver of pulling the side of my eye with my index finger to make out what was on the blackboard.

In high school, I received my first set of contact lenses. These were great — no more goofy frames — and I could see completely with no real limits in my peripheral vision. Although I have had more than a few eye infections — my contact lens hygiene in high school was lacking — I was fairly content. For more than 20 years, I wore contacts.

Changing the Game
Plan About six months ago, my family and I moved back into our renovated home in Broadmoor. We were ecstatic, but for some reason I found I no longer could tolerate my contacts. After an hour of wearing them, my eyes would hurt and become ghoulishly bloodshot. For about three months, I kept trying to return to my contacts.

When I asked my eye doctor when I would be able to go back to contacts, his answer was an unsatisfying, "I don't know." This was the same guy I had consulted about Lasik surgery three years before. His answer then was that that I would need reading glasses soon, so why bother? I figured he must be right, so I wrote it off.

Now, I decided to explore my options.

I emailed a friend who had the surgery a few years back. He said his only regret was that he hadn't done it sooner. I asked some more people and they said essentially the same thing: The surgery is worth it. I researched Lasik, and the information was very encouraging. In a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) study involving Lasik surgery on patients with myopia, or nearsightedness, more than 95 percent reported having 20/20 vision six months after the surgery.

I wanted to know whether or not I qualified for the surgery and if age was a factor. One thing I was certain of was that it was time to get a new eye doctor. I called Dr. Joe Thompson.

Thompson is an ophthalmologist I've known for about a year. We've worked together on various neighborhood committees, and he comes across as intelligent and straightforward. I called him one evening and asked him what he thought of Lasik surgery.

"I think it's safe and effective," he said. "I not only perform the surgery, but I had it done on myself."

That was good enough for me. I made an appointment to see Thompson the next day.

Warming Up
During the visit, I have my eyes examined, and Thompson says I'm a good candidate for the surgery. I haven't had any major problems with my eyes; I am myopic and my refractive error — what it takes to correct my vision to normal — falls within the range for the surgery. Thompson explains that for a nearsighted person, the eyeballs are too long. So light rays entering the eye are bent, and distant images look blurry. The surgery will flatten the cornea, the transparent front window of the eye, so that the light rays will be direct and distant images clearer.

He says that age really isn't a factor. He explains that I will likely need reading glasses sometime within the next few years — I'm 42 years old and the loss of close focus, or presbyopia, occurs as you age — but that shouldn't preclude the surgery. I think he's right. I should have at least three years of 20/20 vision, and so what if I eventually need reading glasses? After years of contacts and eyeglasses, wearing glasses only for reading is not a big deal. Presbyopia often can be corrected without reading glasses through monovision. With monovision, a person basically has one eye for distance and one eye for viewing things up close, and it can be achieved using contact lenses or through eye surgery. The success depends on the person and their situation. He gave me a pair of contact lenses to try, but I couldn't really focus without closing one eye or the other, and after awhile I had a headache.

"It's only worth it to give something up [distance vision in both eyes] if you're going to get something in return, which is not having to put on reading glasses," Thompson says. "You're not at the point where you have to wear reading glasses."

In discussing Lasik, Thompson says the surgery has been around for about 10 years (the FDA approved the procedure in 1999 after investigating it for two years). The procedure calls for an incision to be made in the outermost layer of the cornea, creating a "flap." The flap is lifted and laid over to the side, exposing the inner layers of the cornea. Then a computer-programmed laser is used to remove microscopic layers of the cornea. Afterwards, the flap is put back, where it self-adheres and heals. Patients will feel some pressure — believe me, this isn't "doctor speak" for pain — and the entire procedure takes less than 20 minutes.

Calling the Play
For me, the most important question had to do with seeing 20/20. When I ask Thompson about this, he answers thoughtfully, without making a sales pitch.

"I can't guarantee [20/20 vision] for you, but the odds are fairly strong that you will achieve that. If you don't, the odds are even better that what you will achieve will only be marginally less crisp than that."

I can't help myself. I push for more information on his success rate. After more than 500 surgeries, he can only think of a few of his patients who didn't end up with 20/20 vision. Those are some pretty good odds. Beth and I had already decided that if I was a good candidate for the surgery and it made sense, I would get it done.

The average cost for Lasik surgery ranges from about $1,500 to $2,000 for both eyes. Because the procedure is considered cosmetic, health insurance doesn't normally cover it. However, glasses and contacts aren't free either — our health insurance doesn't include a vision plan — and there are other advantages to the surgery. I won't be wearing contacts any longer (or trying to), so the chance of an infection is lessened considerably.

Jumping out of bed without feeling around for my glasses isn't really a measurable value, but it will be a relief.

One advantage of writing a first-person article about eye surgery is that you can call the ophthalmologist the night before the surgery under the guise of needing questions answered for your story. I lob him a few softball questions about recuperating and he tells me the correction is almost instantaneous, light sensitivity lasts about 48 hours, most people will need drops for dry eyes and there are a couple of prescription eye drops — and then I hit him with: What's the worse that could happen?

"I could get in a car accident and die on the way to the surgery," he says. "The next worse is that it happens to you."

Thompson follows this by saying that as far as he knows, no one has ever gone blind because of Lasik surgery. According to Market Scope, an eye-care market research company, there were 1.3 million Lasik surgeries performed in 2005.

The Home Stretch
I'm pretty relaxed when they call my name. The Valium they gave me probably has something to do with it. I walk into the surgical area and a technician has me say my name out loud as a final verification that I am the right person so they can be sure that the correct coordinates are punched into the laser software program. I lie back in a reclining chair and Thompson goes to work. Beth is watching a TV monitor of the procedure only a few feet away.

I don't feel any pain when Thompson creates the flap on my cornea. He tells me to keep my eyes open while he works. I do smell a faint odor of something burning, but it doesn't bother me. Not much later, I'm led to another recliner. Another 15 minutes pass, and then Thompson checks my eyes. Already, my vision has been corrected to 20/25 for both eyes.

When I return to Thompson's office two days later, I find out that my vision isn't 20/20; it's 20/15 — which is even better. Thompson tells me to continue using eye drops and come back to see him in about two weeks. I ask him if there are any restrictions, and he tells me not to go swimming for a week.

"Nothing else?" I ask.

"Nope."

That's good because after this, I'm driving over to take a few swings in a batting cage.

healthfeat-15247.jpeg
Dr. Joe Thompson performs LASIK on reporter David- - Winkler Schmit, a procedure that took about 20 minutes - and left the journalist, who has worn glasses or contact - lenses most of his life, with 20/15 vision. - CHERYL GERBER
  • Cheryl Gerber
  • Dr. Joe Thompson performs LASIK on reporter David- Winkler Schmit, a procedure that took about 20 minutes and left the journalist, who has worn glasses or contact lenses most of his life, with 20/15 vision.

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