What Happens During Laser Eye Surgery?
Until 2007, this girl had always been blind as a bat.
I think I started wearing glasses in the second grade. It wasn’t long before I needed super-thick lenses. As I got older, my mom made sure to get polycarbonate lenses on my glasses, because the edges could be ground down to make them appear thinner. I don’t really think it helped all that much, though. To me, they were still Coke-bottle glasses.
Even when I was a kid, I remember my optometrist telling my mom that when I was older and my vision stabilized, I would probably be a candidate for something like radial keratotomy, an early sight-correction surgery. As a ten-year old kid, I shuddered at the thought. Surgery on my EYES? I don’t think so.
In seventh grade, I made the switch to contacts. I went through a love/hate relationship with my contacts. I really wanted to get rid of my glasses, but as a pre-teen, I had some difficulty keeping up with the care and maintenance of my lenses.
When I first got them, I remember sitting at the eye doctor’s office, trying to put them in. It took me a little bit, but I finally got it. I was so excited that I could see without having to wear big, clunky glasses. The eye doctor wouldn’t let me leave until I could get the contacts out. That part seemed to take longer, as I was squeamish about the whole “touching my eye” thing to be able to get the lens out.
And, as a kid, I know I didn’t take care of my contacts like I was supposed to. Sometimes I’d leave them in (and sleep in them!) for days at a time. I ended up getting dried out, itchy eyes and got tired of even having to fuss with them. But when I had to face the alternative – wearing my clunky glasses – I figured I was better off dealing with the contacts.
As I got older, I knew to take better care of my contacts. I hardly ever wore my glasses. But even contact lenses got to be a bother. I always had to make sure I had solution or rewetting drops with me. I had to have a case and solution if I was traveling or spending the night somewhere. Swimming or going to the beach was a pain because I didn’t want to have to wear my glasses, but I also worried about losing my contacts in the water. And I couldn’t NOT wear contacts – I think in high school my prescription was something like 20/120. I was definitely blind as a bat. I could see shapes and colors and blobs. That was it. I would have to be right on top of you to tell who you were. At least my prescription had seemed to stabilize throughout my high school years, and both eyes were the same.
After years and years of having to deal with contacts and glasses, I asked the optometrist what they thought about Lasik and other vision correction surgeries. The optometrist seemed skeptical, saying that technology was always changing and that because it was still relatively new, people didn’t yet know the long-term effects of the surgery.
This kind of bothered me, because even when I was young, my old optometrist seemed to think the surgery would be a good thing for me. I couldn’t help but wonder if the optometrist I was seeing just didn’t want to lose $ - if I had the surgery, I wouldn’t need to buy contacts or glasses from him anymore.
A few people that I knew talked about having the surgery, and one friend had actually had a very successful Lasik surgery. So I decided that I would finally look into it.
I decided to "look" into Lasik.
One of the biggest pieces of advice my friend gave me was: Make sure the doctor doing the surgery is the one that does all of your measurements. Makes sense to me. If you’re going to be slicing my cornea or shooting a laser at my eyeballs, I don’t want somebody mixing up any measurements.
I made an appointment to see Dr. Lewis Groden at Lasik Plus in Tampa. At my initial visit, I did all the usual vision screenings that you would normally do at the optometrist. I sat with a technician who did what I guess you could call a topography scan of my eyes. Then I got some bad news.
He explained to me that I actually would NOT be a good candidate for Lasik. He told me that the diameter of my pupils was actually so-many-millimeters bigger than the diameter of the laser that they use. My pupils are pretty large anyway, and when my eyes are dilated, it’s like even my irises are black! Because of my weirdly proportioned pupils, proceeding with the Lasik surgery would end in disastrous results – blurry vision, rings and halos around lights, bad night vision. He said they wouldn’t even recommend trying it. I was extremely disappointed, feeling like I would be stuck in glasses or contacts forever. That was when I realized just how badly I wanted this surgery!
After consulting with the surgeon, the technician returned and said that although Lasik was not an option, I was a candidate for PRK, or photorefractive keratectomy. This didn’t sit too well with me at first. From what I’d read during my Internet research, PRK was different from Lasik in that you didn’t have a flap cut into your cornea, which actually sounded better to me – but the recovery time was said to be longer and possibly even more painful.
After a couple more tests to confirm my candidacy, watching a video on the different laser eye surgery procedures, and watching other patients come in, get their surgery done, and leave, I decided to go with it.
I had to go several weeks before the surgery without my contacts. I wasn’t happy about this step in the process, but you have to do it to allow your eyes time to heal and repair themselves. So I was back to my clunky old glasses again.
When I arrived at Lasik Plus for my surgery, they gave me a Valium to take. I sat in a chair directly across from the surgery rooms – paneled in clear glass walls so that anybody sitting in the room can watch the person getting their surgery, or see a close-up of the surgery on the TVs mounted on the wall in the room. I’d already seen the surgery up close a handful of times and I’d only been to the place twice!
I couldn’t help being nervous. I’d already read and been warned that recovering from PRK could be more uncomfortable than Lasik, so that worried me a little. However, my friend that had Lasik had told me that as soon as they sliced the flap in his cornea and dried his eye, he couldn’t see a thing. Actually, he said he “went blind.” Those are not words that I’d like to associate with surgery to correct one’s vision, so although I didn’t know what PRK would be like, I was thankful for the fact that my corneas wouldn’t be sliced and would instead only be reshaped with the laser. I’d also heard about how people that had Lasik had to wear covers over their eyes to make sure they didn’t actually move or dislodge their cornea flap – and that the cornea flap could actually come completely off during surgery! PRK was actually starting to sound better and better!
When I went into the room to meet with the surgeon prior to surgery, he explained to me everything that would happen. They’d cover and tape one eye shut. The other one would be held and taped open. They’d put numbing and paralyzing drops in my eye, scoot me under the laser, do all the measurements, and then start zapping. The laser would make a rapid, ticking-zapping sound, and that I might smell something like burning hair or skin. It would all take about a minute and a half, and then that eye would be done. They’d undo my eye, squirt medicine and water in there, and then repeat on the other eye.
I sat there, realizing that in about five minutes, this would all be over. The surgeon told me to hand over my glasses because I wouldn’t be needing them anymore. He led me into the surgery room and I laid down in the chair.
Everything about the surgery was exactly as the surgeon described. I think the most uncomfortable part of the surgery was the way they hold your eye open and tape it; you instinctively want to blink, but your eyelids aren’t going anywhere.
While they taped one eye shut and the other open, I looked up at the laser machinery above me – it was all a blur. The whole room, everything – blurry shapes and colors.
When it was time to begin, I held as still as possible (I probably held my breath the whole time!) and just pretended that I was staring at the machine above me. Of course, one eye was closed, and the other was being blasted with a laser, so all I really saw was… a big red blur. I didn’t feel anything, but I guess it was a little warm on my eye. Not really uncomfortable, though. I could hear the zapping sound, but I didn’t smell anything. I was counting the ticks of the machine, thinking that it seemed like the longest minute and a half ever. I also remember thinking to myself that it was very weird to be lying in a chair while a laser beam blasted away at my eyeball.
Then suddenly, the big red blur seemed to get sharper. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but instead of a big red blur, I started to see shapes. Red dots, going around and around in a spiral. Then all of a sudden, the ticking stopped, the red dots went away, and I was looking up at the laser machine with one eye. They pushed the machine away and started squirting medicine and other liquid into my eye. When they untaped my eyelids and I could blink (finally!) I realized with shock that I could SEE! The machine above me was incredibly clear!
I barely had time to enjoy this because they uncovered my other eye, slapped the cover on the just-fixed eye, and taped it shut. We started over on the other eye, and I wriggled my toes in excitement. It worked! In another minute… thirty seconds… I would be able to see! I couldn’t wait!
As soon as they finished with my other eye and let me sit up, I looked around in surprise. I could make out everyone’s faces. I could read the clock on the wall. I could read their name tags. I could see my dad standing on the other side of the glass wall, watching me. I COULD SEE!
I did a vision test and my eyes were 20/40. They gave me drops and medicine to put in my eyes a couple times a day and told me take it easy and rest my eyes. I wore the big, huge sunglasses that they gave me on the way out, but I could see! On the hour-long trip home from Tampa, I was looking at everything and reading every sign we passed. I called and texted people left and right, jubilant that the surgery was a success! And I felt great.
It was really hard for me to rest like they told me to, because I was so excited. I took pain medicine just in case I needed it, but it wasn’t really that bad. I had to wear my sunglasses to sleep so I didn’t rub or scratch my eyes. I slept a lot off and on in the first couple days because it was hard not to watch TV or read. But I had to take it easy on my eyes!
I’d read that PRK was supposed to be much worse and more painful of a recovery than Lasik, but I only had one night that was really uncomfortable. The light from the TV really bothered me and my eyes seemed to be really dry, but at the same time they were really watery. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, but sleep. I was fine in the morning.
After two more weeks , I went back for my follow-up visit. My eyes were 20/20. I was good to go!
I plan to write a more formal hub comparing Lasik and PRK in the future, so check back here for more information!
I can see clearly now...
Having good vision took some getting used to. If I woke up in the middle of the night and wanted to see what time it was, I no longer had to fumble for my glasses on the nightstand to read the digital clock. It would kind of surprise me and scare me that it was the middle of the night, and for some reason, I could see just fine. It took awhile for me to break the habit of reaching up to take my glasses off before going to bed at night. Some mornings I would get up and go into the bathroom, thinking I had to put my contacts in, and then I’d wonder if I’d slept in them because I could already see just fine. It was a long time before I opened my eyes underwater in the pool – I was so used to wearing my contacts and keeping my eyes closed while swimming, that it just felt strange to me to open my eyes under water.
A couple years later, though, and I’m happy to report that my vision is still the same!
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