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Laser surgery on eyes

I had laser surgery in 1999 to correct my short sightedness, at Optimax. They did my left eye at the end of July, and then the right eye in October. So, starting with the left one:

The actual operation was pretty quick; I was only in there for about 15 minutes. Basically, after they'd tested my eyes (to get the right prescription), they put a pad over my right eye, and put some anaesthetic drops in my left eye. Once the drops kicked in, the doctor clamped my eyelid open (to prevent me from blinking), and cleaned the surface. This didn't hurt; I could just feel a pushing sensation, like you get if you push one finger against your arm. The offputting thing was that I could see something being stuck right into my field of vision, and wiping around it. I'm not sure what it was, due to my odd angle, but it looked like a cotton bud on a stick. Anyway, once the eye was clean, they shone the laser into it, and told me to look at the dot in the middle, and keep my head still. I did my best, but I was pretty nervous, so one of the doctors stood behind me and held my head to keep it steady. If you think "skittish horse", you should have a pretty good idea of my attitude. It took all my will-power to keep lying there, and not buck my head out of the way. At one point, the doctor told her assistant to make a note on my records to give me tranquillisers when I went back for the other eye! Personally, I'd be much happier with a head clamp in that situation, but I realise that some people might find it off-putting if the operation room resembled a torture chamber...

Anyway, once the operation was over, I came home. (This was on the Tuesday, and I'd taken the whole week off work.) The clinic said that I should get someone to bring me home, but this was awkward since everyone I knew was at work during the day. The clinic then said that a taxi would be fine, so I planned to do that. However, nobody was paying much attention to me as I left, so I thought "Aha! I'll take the train home, and save myself some money." Cunning plan, eh? Well, no! By the time I got home, I was stumbling along, trying to shelter my right eye from the sunlight. At this point, my left eye was bandaged, and my right eye was clear, but it was still pretty light sensitive. Obviously, I couldn't do anything with my left eye at this point, but the catch was that I couldn't do much with my right eye either. If I read a book, for instance, then my right eye would be moving backwards and forwards. This would move my left eye too, which would hurt... I spent the rest of Tuesday and Wednesday with my eyes shut most of the time. I listened to some CDs (I have some audio books, which were very useful), and slept a lot. Actually, I slept a lot! That week, I would be out for 12 hours a night, and then I'd nap for about 3 hours in the afternoon. Considering that I wasn't doing anything particularly taxing when I was awake, I guess that my body must have been sucking up energy to heal itself.

My experiences may differ from other people's here, for one important reason - although I was issued with painkillers after the surgery, which I was supposed to take at 12 hour intervals, I didn't actually use them. This is part of my general philosophy, which dates back to a first aid course that I took in Durham. The teacher told us that pain is our friend, not our enemy, because it tells us that we're in trouble. Imagine if your hand was numb, and you leant it on a hot stove... Now, I'm not a masochist, and I don't enjoy pain. However, I think that in a situation like this, it is giving me useful information. Specifically, if it hurts when I move my eyes, then that's probably a good indication that I should keep my eyes still. And since I was spending all day in bed anyway, the pain didn't actually get in my way, by stopping me from doing anything that I would otherwise be able to do. However, just to clarify, I think that anaesthetic during surgery is a good thing, since otherwise I wouldn't stay still!

On Wednesday evening I took the patch off, as per instructions. This was tricky, since my left eye was even more light-sensitive than my right, but I needed to see what I was doing. I settled for going into the bathroom, with the door ajar, and the light on in the hallway. Anyway, once I took the pad off, I got quite a shock: my vision was completely distorted, much worse than it had been before the operation. As well as everything being blurry, it looked as if my left eye was actually off-centre, i.e. my right pupil was in the middle of the white area, but the left pupil was off to the left somewhere. However, I thought to myself "Don't panic! This is probably just temporary. Go to bed now, and see how it is in the morning." I also asked William (my flatmate) whether my eyes looked okay to him (which probably seemed like an odd request!), and he said they seemed fine, which reassured me. Anyway, the next morning things did improve, and I could at least see my reflection without being scared. My vision was still pretty blurry through my left eye, so I wandered around with my hand on my nose (i.e. thumb on nostril, fingertips against hairline), so that I could block one eye or the other, and avoid mixed signals.

Things continued to improve over the next couple of days. One way I tracked this was by looking at a Xena poster on my wall opposite my bed. This has writing at three different sizes, and as the days passed I was able to read the smaller letters. This was actually pretty cool; it was like being younger, when I'd measure my height by jumping up to touch the top of a door, then reaching up on tiptoe, etc. By Saturday I was feeling human again, and so I was up to leaving the flat. After a few weeks, my vision seemed fine. I had an eye-test, and the optician said that I could read the line of letters that meant "20-20 vision". I was a bit long-sighted at that point, but that was improving; I was +1.5 after the operation, and +1 when I went for the test. Hopefully I'll stabilise at 0. (I was -4.25 before the operation.) I had no regrets about having the surgery, and I was looking forward to having the other eye done. It wasn't actually that expensive either: £495 per eye, with six months interest free credit. Considering that I used to spend over £300 per year on contact lenses, that meant that I broke even in three years, and it is a lot more convenient to have unaided vision.

Moving on to the right eye (which had a presecription of -4 before the operation), one slight catch was that I couldn't wear my contact lens (singular now!) for 10 days before the operation. The first time, I just wore my glasses for that period instead, which was fine. This time, I couldn't keep the left lens in my glasses, because it's the wrong prescription for that eye. I could have had it replaced by a flat lens, but it didn't really seem worth the money for such a short time. So, I decided to just take it out, and walk around with a gap there for a week! It looked a bit stupid, but it wasn't for long. Mind you, I did consider turning the right lens into a monocle... The second operation went off without a hitch, and my vision is 20-20 without any assistance, which is pretty cool! Mind you, I have to admit that I got used to it quite quickly, so I don't wake up each morning thinking "Wow!" For the right eye, I had the operation on a Thursday, and returned to work the following Monday. If you can take a full week off for each eye, that that's probably best, but I didn't want to use too many of my annual holiday days.

So, four years on, what are the long term effects? I was supposed to go back for another eye test one year after the surgery, but I never got round to it, so I'll try to do that soon. But informally, my vision seems fine. It's certainly good enough to drive (I can read a licence plate at the appropriate distance), and I haven't noticed any problems in lectures (e.g. being unable to read the writing on the board/projector). Similarly, my night vision is fine.

Overall, I am very happy with the results, and I would recommend it to anyone, although you may need a different type of surgery if your prescription is very strong. If you're interested in surgery, you can get a free information pack from Optimax, including a video, which is worth watching. One point that I should clarify here - the company does have a "refer a friend" scheme, where I can get £25 for each person that I refer to them. However, I have chosen not to take part in this, because I am concerned that it would affect my objectivity.

If you do decide to go ahead with surgery, then it's a good idea to do some planning. The most important point is that you will want to keep both eyes closed until the patch comes off. It's ok to open the unaffected eye briefly, but try to avoid it as much as possible. So, this means that you need to be able to get around the house as if you were blind. For instance, if you have a staircase, count how many stairs there are, so that you can confidently go up and down. Also, if you live with other people, ask them not to move items around. In my case, there was a box sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor for a few months, so I used that as a navigation point: "Walk three steps diagonally from the doorway, until I get to the box, then turn slightly and walk forward again, to get to the fridge." Meanwhile, William saw the box, and thought "Ah, I'd better move that, in case John trips over it." This confused me slightly when I became stranded in the middle of the floor without a landmark! So, a kind sentiment, but we were working at cross-purposes. In terms of food, I don't think that I did any cooking during this period. So, I got by with a combination of delivery pizza and food that requires minimal preparation, such as apples, or anything that comes in a sealed wrapper (such as a chocolate bar). Of course, if you have a partner who you can enlist as a cook/waiter for a couple of days, so much the better.

One other issue is that I wore contact lenses before I had the surgery. I initially wanted to have these when I first started wearing glasses, when I was 15 years old. However, I just couldn't get the hang of putting the lenses into my eyes - I'd blink every time the lens got near. After a couple of months of trying and failing each week, I gave up on the idea. I then tried again when I was 21, and I had more success, although it was still difficult at first. The point is, if you have trouble putting things in your eyes, then you will probably have trouble with the surgery. For instance, you will need to use eye drops after the surgery. So, if you've only ever worn glasses, then I'd recommend testing your sensitivity/reflexes before booking surgery.

This page was last updated on 2003-12-29 by John C. Kirk

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