January 28, 2013

Clearly now: my experience with LASIK eye surgery

The room was dazzlingly bright and clean. It looked like the operating room in the television show Scrubs, except without the big glass window and the clever dialogue. To my right, I could see a bunch of equipment. All the people in the room were wearing scrubs and face masks so I couldn’t tell who they were; they could have been aliens.

One of the aliens reached to grab my elbow. She spoke in a normal human voice, “Lie down here.” So I stretched out on a stiff padded table, the type the school nurse had in her office when I was a kid.

Once I was lying flat, the alien instructed me to slide up so that my head was underneath all the equipment. I looked up and right into the eyes of the surgeon, who was sitting right behind my head. That’s all I could see. The rest of his face was covered with a mask.

He pulled some stiff, padded things around my head, much like the head protection that you might find on an extreme roller coaster. He put drops into my eyes. “You’re going to feel some pressure,” he said. Clamps came down to hold my eyelids open. It felt odd, but didn’t particularly hurt. I had a flashback to the late seventies, when I was in high school, and we used these metal things to curl our eyelashes. 

“These are antiobiotic drops,” the surgeon said as he squirted liquid into my eyes. I didn’t care what they were; the drops felt wonderful.

I focused on taking shallow breaths. I went into meditation mode. When thoughts came into my head, I let them go. I'd read about 40 peer-reviewed journal articles before making the decision to have laser eye surgery, so I knew exactly what the risks were. I didn't want to be thinking about that. I pushed all thoughts out of my head and took a breath, then another breath.

My head was in some kind of swivel thing. The doctor would talk to me and tell me what he was doing, and then he’d swivel my head over the left, and another male voice would say something like, “The eye is stable.”

The surgeon cut the flap in my right eye — I only know because he told me so, I had no sensation of cutting — and then he cut the flap in my left eye. Things went dark, except for this pulsing red light, which I tried to focus on. Everything was blurry — the red pulsing light spread across my vision, like watching fireworks without my glasses on.

After each step of the procedure, I could hear the surgeon’s voice say, “Beautiful.” That was reassuring. He cut each flap and then he did the laser part. He said to me, “Okay, stay very still.” I held my breath. I couldn’t feel anything, but I could smell the burning — the way my hair smells if I lean too far into the fire and accidentally burn some of it.

A woman’s voice on my right spoke. She seemed to be reading numbers off a machine. “Beautiful,” the surgeon said. Then he moved to my other eye. “Okay, stay very still.” I held my breath again. “Beautiful,” the surgeon said. He put drops in both eyes. The cool liquid felt great.

“We’re done,” he said. The whole thing had taken just a few minutes. I could feel him moving the equipment, taking the clamps off my eyelids.

“Can I breathe again?” I asked. I was startled to hear laughing from what seemed to be a whole roomful of people. They’d all been so quiet during the surgery I’d forgotten they were there.

Once the clamps were off my eyes, I slid down the table and sat up. The room was blurry, but I could see the people, the clock on the wall, the doorway.

“I can see!” I said. I was just so damned relieved. They all laughed again, and the woman who was taking my elbow to help me off the table said, “That’s kind of the point.”

She escorted me to a dim area with a couple of chairs. She put some gunk in my eyes and said, “Now keep your eyes closed.”

I sat patiently for half an hour. My husband came out of the other waiting room and sat with me. He held my hand while I talked about how relieved I was to have the procedure over. My husband is so squeamish that he doesn’t even like to put drops in his eyes, so he too was happy that the surgery was done.

Then the surgeon came out to examine my eyes. When I opened them, the room was still blurry, but I glanced over at a poster on the wall. I could read the words! The surgeon looked at each eye. “Beautiful,” he said. “Don’t rub your eyes. Everything looks good. Don’t rub your eyes.”

I’d brought sunglasses, but when I walked out of the building, it was easier to just keep my eyes closed. The glaring winter sun was dreadful. My husband guided me to the car, and I kept my eyes closed all the way home. I’d been warned that my eyes would be light sensitive at first, so I’d already closed the curtains in my bedroom. The surgeon’s instructions were specific: I was supposed to go home and take a nap.

I didn’t actually sleep – probably because I’d skipped the medications. (The doctor routinely prescribes a painkiller and a valium, but I had chosen not to take either pill.) Besides, it was still afternoon so I wasn’t tired. Instead I lay quietly with my eyes shut and observed the sensations. Once the anaesthetizing eye drops wore off, my eyes did hurt. I remembered the time that my sister throw sand in my eyes at the beach and my eyes hurt for several hours later; that was the feeling.

By evening, the pain had subsided. I was paranoid about getting poked in the eyes, so I just walked around the house wearing the plastic goggles that I’d been told to use for sleeping for the first week. My kids found the goggles quite amusing. Things were blurry — especially lights — but I could see. 

I’d been instructed to use nighttime eye gel for the first month after the surgery. The stuff is pretty gross. It’s like squirting Vaseline straight into your eye. But I obediently put in the gel, which made everything blurry, and put on the goggles before going to sleep.

By the time I woke up the next day, the painful sensations were gone. My eyes were a bit dry and itchy, like they used to get when I left my contact lenses in too long. But I’d prepared by buying a whole bunch of preservative-free eye drops. Every time I felt like rubbing my eyes, I put drops in instead. That worked.

I wasn’t supposed to get any water in my eyes for the first week, which meant that the gunk from the gel and the eyedrops just stuck to my eyelashes, which felt a little odd. As we drove to the eye doctor for my follow-up appointment, I looked out through the windshield and marveled at the world. 

“I can read that sign! I can see the numbers on that house! I can read that license plate!” I announced every victory. I’d had a really high degree of pre-operative myopia, so the eye doctor had warned me that what he could do might be limited, but at that appointment, less than 24 hours later, my vision tested at 20/20.

 I haven’t been able to see that well since third grade.


Bardiac said...

That's fabulous! So exciting! How long has it been since you had it done?

jo(e) said...

It's been three weeks. I went back for my three-week check-up this morning, and everything looks good.

I didn't want to write about it until I knew that it was successful .....

Anonymous said...

Lasik! What made you decide to do it?


jo(e) said...

Anon: I was content to wear contacts -- the rigid gas permeable ones did a good job because they flattened the cornea and eliminated the astigmatism -- but then as I got older, my eyes started rejecting the contacts. Last summer, I ended up mostly wearing glasses, which sucked because the glasses didn't give me very good vision. (Soft lenses, which were more comfortable than the hard ones, didn't work well enough either -- the astigmatism was too much of a problem.) My sister had a great experience with lasik so I decided to look into it. I was surprised to find out I was a good candidate for the surgery; I really expected the surgeon to tell me I wasn't.

Julie Sweeney said...

Wow! What a story! The idea of being awake through that procedure totally creeped me out. You are my new hero!!

Rev Dr Mom said...


I have the same issue with astigmatism and contacts, and I wear glasses 95% of the time...never considered lasik....hmmmmm

Urban Sophisticate Sister said...

I've been waiting to read your report on this!!! It sounds so similar to mine, including the recovery. I also announced every victory as I walked to my doctor's appt the next day (of course, I was walking by myself - crazy woman alert). It's been almost 3 years and it's been one of the best decisions ever!

Urban Sophisticate Sister said...

Oh, and sorry about the sand. I don't recall that being intentional!

undine said...


jo(e) said...

Urban Sophisticate Sister: I think the sand *was* an accident, but I remember being angry anyhow.

YourFireAnt said...

Quit griping. She gave you a metaphor with the sand.


jo(e) said...

FA: Yeah, I'm going to say that next time I throw sand in someone's eyes. "Be grateful! I'm giving you a metaphor!"

sheepish said...

I'm glad it went so well for you. Yay! But reading this was a nightmare to me. I'm so eye-squeamish that I cannot even watch people put in or remove contacts. This post is the stuff of nightmares.

readersguide said...

Eeek. You are brave.

L said...

WOO-HOOO!!!!!! The best thing I ever did!!!! I was just saying that yesterday when I woke up.

Welcome to the LASIK team! (I mean, especially the slightly older people who did LASIK anyway and loved it team!)

Now... how could you have the courage to read those articles about it? I just COULDN'T! And I took the Valium... but no painkiller (it wasn't offered).

I wish I'd written down my account, it's still not too late to do it, your post has inspired me.

I'm SO EXCITED for you! (and me!) ;-)

The question I'm afraid of asking... how do you feel about the fact that we will still need to wear reading glasses? (I'm particularly dreading that, 'cause I had glasses, period)

jo(e) said...

L: Oh, I couldn't have gone into the surgery without doing a ton of research -- it's my way of reducing the anxiety. I needed to know exactly what the risks were.

I do need reading glasses for some things now, but that's really not a big deal. I was so near-sighted before that even books were too far away -- the last time I read a book without glasses was when I was a kid. So much of the reading and writing I do is on the computer, and I can just make that print bigger with a touch of my fingers. I don't mind glasses when I'm sitting still reading a book -- they aren't annoying then.

I'm really looking forward to this summer and being able to see when I go swimming.

Lomagirl said...

That's wonderful! I had a pre-Lasik version of this surgery, though much the same, I think. I'm so thankful I did as it has made my life so much easier!
I do wear glasses at night to drive usually because the eye adjustment didn't extend to how wide the eyes dilate or something.
I got a little squeamish reading this even thought I've lived it- ha!

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

I live in such a dry climate, I can't wear contacts for a whole day - but they're OK for a couple hours of snowboarding. I wear glasses the rest of the time, and they've never given me a lick of trouble -- although I am noticing more of a halo effect at night from the astigmatism in my right eye. So far the freakiness of the surgery hasn't been outweighed by my poor vision, but I imagine in a decade it might.

Yay for you! I'm so glad it went well.

Amanda said...

Hmm, I've wondered about Lasik. I can't wear glasses for longer than an hour without getting a headache. My contacts are becoming more an more of a challenge as my eyes get moody about accepting them.

When you used the word flap...and so many other parts, I had shivers on my spine. I don't know, but then I think, maybe. Flip flop. Sigh.

liz said...

So glad it worked for you!!!

Annette said...

Wow! How exciting! So glad it all went well...and the eyelash curler has always terrified me.

jo(e) said...

The oddest thing about the eyelash curler -- thinking back to those days -- was the assumption that curly eyelashes were somehow superior to straight ones? I mean, how does that even make sense? But those were also the days when women wore blue eye shadow ....

L said...

People still use those curlers, especially younger people. And, so I'm told by fashion mags, anyone who uses mascara should use a curler.

Blue eye shadow is out, but blue mascara is in! ;-)

I wish I had really long eyelashes, mine are thin & short. Not my boys' though, but they are BOYS! ;-)

I want to write about my surgery now... I wish I had before you did yours.

For me the research and the risks would just have made me more nervous. I didn't really feel a difference with the valium only that it made me drowsy and feeling "soft" somehow. And I enjoyed the two hours nap after getting home 'cause I'd get nervous being in bed with my eyes closed for a long time. my hyperactivity would have "killed" me! ;-)

BrightenedBoy said...

My vision is horrible. It began deteriorating when I was in 6th grade and went downhill rapidly before stabilizing right around 20/400. As someone who's considered this surgery it was really interesting to read about your experience.