A Cautionary Tale

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Nobody wants to be an anomaly when it comes to medical matters, the kind of patient who prompts doctors to shake their head and say softly, "I've never seen this before."

I had followed advances in vision-correcting surgery for more than a decade. My eyes were awful. I had glasses as a young child, contacts as a teenager, but lately I could wear only an exotic and costly kind of lens. Glasses didn't work as well. Allergy season was a nightmare. And yes, I had always dreamed of being able to wake up and read the clock across the room, to swim and see who was hanging around poolside. But I was also apprehensive—bad eyes are better than worse eyes, and there were some early horror stories.

Then lasers came on the scene, with little but rosy reports. I began to think it was time. I went to three doctors to be sure I was a good candidate. I called every friend-of-a-friend who'd been through it; all were elated, except one worrisome soul who developed a scary condition called "Sands of Sahara." But my doctor, a respected and decent guy, soothed me, told me I'd be fine. He pulled out the charts of his many delighted patients, saying he had sent more than 200 to have it done. The LASIK surgeon he referred me to, perhaps the most experienced in the Washington area, has reshaped thousands of corneas.

I was more excited than scared. The procedure wasn't painful. It was over in 10 minutes. It was worse for my husband, who followed it close-up on a TV monitor and said it was almost as bad as watching my caesarean. I went home, took a nap, woke up—and could see the clock across the room. At the doctor's the next day, I was seeing 20/20 with my left eye, 20/40 with my right.

But instead of getting better, my vision worsened. I was told my corneas were extremely dry, and I should apply artificial tears every couple of hours. Then the surgeon was consulted; he suggested I use the drops more often, about every 15 minutes. This wasn't especially practical for a working journalist with two kids, but I tried to stick to the schedule. It didn't do the trick.

Next we tried plugging my tear ducts (outgoing, not incoming) to keep my eyes moist. I switched doctors, and allowed the new one to cauterize my ducts shut. Still not much change. My eyes are wetter, and I'm using artificial tears less frequently, but my vision hasn't improved correspondingly.

And that's where things stand now, 10 months since the surgery. The doctors keep saying they're confident of solving this problem—but they also say my experience is extremely unusual (one of them says he's never seen this in anyone else), so their confidence is less than inspiring. Two other doctors I consulted said there was nothing wrong surgically, and they too think my condition will get better.

I hope so. But while I'm waiting, here's the worst part: my vision now can't be improved, except marginally, with glasses. The problem is on the surface of my eye, which isn't what lenses correct. One doctor likens it to scratches on the crystal of a watch.

Some days I'm pretty sure my story will have a happy ending. At other times, though, I look at my children, ages four-and-a-half and two years, and wonder if I'll ever see them in crisp focus again. I'm devastated that reading is now often more a chore than a pleasure, especially in the evening. I need far more light to make things out.

I avoid driving in unfamiliar terrain, especially at night, because I can't read road signs until I'm on top of them. I'm constantly testing myself. Can I read that ad on the other side of the subway car? Can I see that license plate in front of me? How hard is it to read the daily Hotline on the Internet?

It's great that most people who have had this procedure feel like lottery winners and I hope that I can join them soon. But my new doctor is spending an increasing amount of time with patients, most of them referred by other doctors, who are having post-LASIK problems. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn't. Still, I understand the lure of that pot of gold, the promise of a lifelong wish granted. So to those who feel they have to join this mostly happy club, I can't say don't. Just make the decision with eyes wide open.