Living with LASIK

My Future is Uncertain

I have extreme LASIK-induced dry eyes. I wear air-tight goggles in my house, in my car, and outside. I avoid public places, and shy away from social gatherings. The moving air of shopping malls and grocery stores intensifies my constantly burning eyes. I am terribly sensitive to sunlight, even with tinted goggles. Dry eye pain and burning wake me in the middle of every single night. I can no longer read or watch TV for pleasure.

I am living a crisis, and have only managed the outcome of my LASIK surgery with the support of my family, friends, the grace of God and my inner strength.

I never wanted a “story” to tell. My 30 something years had always gone reasonably smoothly for me. My general health had also always been good. For these blessings I was grateful and still am. The icing was the most loving and understanding husband a woman could want, and two beautiful children who by far have brought me more joy than anything else in this world could ever touch. But I do have a story to tell, and I want people to know it.

It is amazing to me that the account of a simple, twenty-minute LASIK procedure should be preceded by such profound words and deep reflection. The surgery was supposed to simplify things for me. I would be able to take my children to the pool and not concern myself with water spots on my glasses. I could hold my babies without the worry of little hands pulling eyeglass frames off my face and sending them across the room. My reasons for LASIK were even as elementary as just seeing my clock in the middle of the night, and identifying scattered toys in the hallway when a sick child called for me in the night.

I list all of these logical reasons for choosing LASIK for my own therapeutic benefits. It’s a good reminder. I avoid recalling the more selfish reason I had for seeking LASIK: I was self-conscious about my appearance and simply didn’t want to wear glasses any more.

Free from eyeglasses

A yearning to be free from eyeglasses started in high school. Soft contact lenses served my quite well for a while, and for that I was grateful. They made life easier for me. I found caring for them a privilege more than a chore, and I was stringent about their treatment. Still, in time protein buildup from daily wear and heat disinfecting did their damage. I landed a case of giant papillary conjunctivitis (GPC) and was out of contacts for years.

Later in college I did manage to get in another two or so years of contact lens wear. Finally, I developed an intolerance to them after a severe head cold. This also coincided with a change in prescription that required a thicker, toric lens.

For the next decade I accepted my fate and knew well to be grateful for my gift of vision, as well as the timing of my existence. How did the nearsighted population cope before the invention of eyeglasses? I suppose I would have attached myself to a “hunter” and confined myself to the close-up chores. My prescription was roughly –6.75 in both eyes, add a bit of astigmatism. There wasn’t much to see without my glasses.

I experimented unsuccessfully with contacted lenses during annual eye exams. Several doctors I saw over the years were very willing to work with finding me a tolerable lens. I would wear a sample pair out of the office only to peel them off my miserable eyes when I returned home. I did, in fact, wear a sample pair of contacts on my wedding day. I endured an entire day of itching, burning and poor vision just to avoid wearing glasses on that day.

A case for LASIK

So I had built my case for LASIK. Multiple optometrists told me that I was an excellent candidate for the surgery. Looking back, I find this outlandish since contact lens intolerance is a symptom of dry eye, and is a contraindication in LASIK surgery. The paradox, of course, is the fact that many people seek LASIK because they cannot tolerate contact lenses. But the thought remained in the back of my mind for years that LASIK was something I may do when the time was right.

My husband and I discussed the possibility of my having LASIK surgery every time a friend of ours would report his or her success. I started to get serious about it. Financially it was finally feasible, and the technology was there. Why wait for something better; something better was finally here.

I sought out two LASIK surgeons with good reputations in town. Those LASIK facilities touting “pay for one eye, get the other free” were avoided. I would not be persuaded by techniques reserved for used car sales. Nor would I buy based on price. These were my eyes, my vision, and I cared about them.

The doctor I chose was the most expensive in town. He was well-respected and not the local television LASIK “hot-shot”. The surgeon I’d chosen was the very one who’d performed my own optometrist’s LASIK surgery. My LASIK doctor assured me the surgery was safe. The video I was shown in his office explained that the laser used during surgery would need to pulse 200 times just to penetrate a human hair. The procedure was done on the surface of the eye, and certainly looked harmless and not terribly invasive.

Though I consider myself a very thorough, logical person, I easily shrugged off those details my doctor could not answer. “What about long-term?” I had asked. "Nobody has any data on long-term complications of LASIK," he explained. "The surgery hasn’t been done that long." Still, my surgeon assured me that if he thought there was anything dangerous about the procedure, he would not be doing it.

“Okay, doc, then what about those people I’ve read about on Internet sites who tell horror stories about refractive surgery?” I asked.

His claim that those individuals were poorly screened made sense to me. They must have been the ones falling for the “two-for-one” deals at bargain basement LASIK centers. I further justified that I was with an expert, a doctor no less, and would be screened appropriately.

So began my nightmare

So I signed that blasted informed consent form, surrendered my apprehensions and scheduled my surgery based on my doctor’s hunch that all would be just fine for me. But things were not and will never, ever be just fine.

The first three months following surgery began my nightmare. My eyes had become so dry that I could not see clearly and I was very uncomfortable. My eyelids literally dragged across my eyes. In fact, I wore goggles constantly just for the relief of maintaining humidity on my eyes. I recall driving my son to preschool in those early days after surgery, blinking constantly just to see the road. I cannot even begin to illustrate for anyone just how maddening it is to cope with constant fogginess and intermittent blurring of the eyes. I can only compare it to the mistiness one may see upon awakening in the morning before blinking away the filminess of a night’s sleep. It is a fact that one cannot have quality vision without a proper and healthy tear film.

My doctor didn’t have any effective remedies for me. I used every kind of over-the-counter eye drop available for my condition. These only offered temporary and incomplete relief. There was no miracle drug for him to try. I nearly laughed in my doctor’s face when he suggested I take a special vitamin for dry eyes containing a massive dose of an omega-3 fatty acid. I knew no vitamin was going to cure this. It would take no less than an act of God to put me in a comfortable place. It was at that moment I knew I was truly in trouble.

During frequent and increasingly desperate visits to my surgeon, I was continuously assured that within 6 to 12 months all would become normal; dryness was a typical and temporary result of the surgery. He also assured me that he had never seen a dry eye LASIK patient whose tear film did not return to “baseline”. As absurd as this sounds, he may not be lying. All he had to offer me in my state of extreme discomfort and anxiety was a vitamin and a heartfelt suggestion, “Maybe you should be looking at other parts of your life.”

And with that bit of lousy advice we parted ways. He has not examined my eyes since I passed that magical finish line where he assured me my tear film would return to baseline.

A community of people like me

Soon after, I found an online “community” of people who are very much like me: they had been misled by their LASIK surgeons and were paying the price. Upon finding these people with whom I had so much in common, I fell into a deep depression. Their stories legitimized my own.

Some of these people had been suffering for years, even since the days of radial keratotomy. And they had been trying to find solutions to their dry eyes and serious vision problems for years. I learned that during my LASIK surgery my corneal nerves had been permanently damaged, causing my debilitating dry eyes. Research indicates that these nerves never regenerate fully. These nerves were key messengers in sending healthy tears to the surface of the eye. Gone was my hope that I would ever live happily and comfortably.

I managed through the “post-traumatic” depression, and have been coping one day at a time with my condition. I take a lot of comfort in the support of other post-LASIK sufferers. Most have debilitating dry eyes and pain due to nerve damage as well as severe visual problems: contrast sensitivity loss, blurry vision, double and triple vision, halos, starbursts, induced astigmatism, and LASIK- induced higher order aberrations which underlie many of these visual symptoms.

These victims are amazing, bright people who include physicians, college professors, successful business people, research scientists, administrative assistants, athletes, mothers, fathers…all continually looking for solutions to their problems and many are striving to educate the public about a popular and dangerous “mainstream” surgery. We offer comfort to each other, and rejoice when someone finds a solution that improves the quality of his or her life. We ache every time another victim joins the ranks.

Hoping for a breakthrough

As for me, the best I can hope for is a medical breakthrough in stabilizing tear film. Until that time, I will continue to battle severe eye pain, eye muscle strain and depression caused by the unending pain and guilt associated with having agreed to this risky surgery.

I continue to seek medical advice from eye doctors, endocrinologists, pain specialists, holistic doctors, acupuncturists and anyone else who I expect might offer me some relief. And I have spent a great deal of money doing it. In addition, I’ve tried every pharmaceutical product on the market indicated for dry eyes, as well as herbal remedies, natural supplements and even non-FDA approved pharmaceutical preparations. Thus far, I’ve not seen any real or lasting improvement. Topical eye drops give a very small amount of relief, and only for a few minutes.

Nonetheless, I am blessed with a family that I can still care for. My young children love me despite the goggles and all the goofy rituals I do to manage my day. I live today in deep sadness that my husband and I had hoped to grow our family, and have not found in me a healthy mental “window” in which to allow it. It is said that pregnancy exacerbates dry eye. One day I may take the plunge, and learn to cope as my symptoms intensify. But I am wary.

A difficult story to write

This has been a difficult story to write, and agonizing to read. It is impossible to put into words the sadness LASIK has brought to me and my family. I implore anyone who might be considering LASIK or any elective surgery to research it carefully. A twenty-minute LASIK procedure, intended to improve my vision completely altered the direction of my life. It has blinded some, ruined careers, is to blame for suicidal thoughts and actual cases of suicide.

My future is uncertain. I am terrified of the systemic and hormonal changes aging will bring. A severely dry cornea is in danger of corneal erosions, conjunctival thinning, and could eventually reduce my vision. I can only pray for a solution to this maddening condition. In the meantime, I will work to challenge the LASIK industry that continues to downplay the risks of this surgery. I see the need to be progressive in vision correction, but refractive surgery is definitely not the answer.