A Pain in the Eye That's Forever 

Lasik and its failures

Page 2 of 7

According to the eye chart, at least, Steve Williams of San Lorenzo is one of LASIK's success stories.

Williams was nearsighted with 20/600 vision and astigmatism. He hated glasses, and never could tolerate having hard contact lenses in his eyes. "It was like having a Coke bottle in my eye," he said. "It drove me crazy. I hated them." But as an avid athlete, he wasn't happy with the way glasses inhibited his skiing, golfing, and tennis. So he considered laser vision correction. The turning point in his decision was taking off his glasses during a dip in the ocean in Hawaii, then being unable to locate his towel once he got back out. Even though he was apprehensive, he decided to have the surgery last August.

In the midst of surgery, following his first eye treatment, the laser shut down inexplicably. Williams was asked to get off the table while the doctor reset it. Then his second eye was done. Now, Williams can't help but wonder whether that glitch was behind the poorer surgical results in his left eye, the second one treated. "My right eye is a perfect 20/20, and my left eye is double-vision and fuzzy, though it's 20/30," the Internet network manager said.

Two weeks after surgery, the numbness wore off and dryness set in. "I'm pouring in drops every five minutes," he recalled. He used so many, in fact, that the skin around his eyes became red and tender, as if from a chemical burn. Conventional eyedrops only made his eyes worse, and lubricating eye gels weren't any use, either.

Williams eventually tried to resume playing tennis. But staring at the ball on a windy court caused dry, painful spots -- corneal erosions -- to develop on the surface of his eyes. "I would play once and it would take three weeks to recover," he said. "It feels like you have a stone in your eye."

He remembers the situation as "hideous." He worried that he would be one of those LASIK patients for whom dry eyes never improve. "I'm a tough guy, but believe me, it's very frustrating," he said. Then last December, Williams discovered a Web-based support and advocacy group for people injured by LASIK, www.SurgicalEyes.org, and read about other patients' success with an innovative prescription eyedrop. Formulated by dry-eye expert Frank J. Holly and available only at a single Dallas compounding pharmacy, Apothecure, the new drops finally made the difference for Williams. He applies them at least five times a day: first thing in the morning, before he goes to bed, and periodically throughout the rest of the day. He never leaves the house without them. "Dr. Holly's drops turned me right around," he said. "I don't know what I'd do without them. I'd be miserable, to tell you the truth."

The 47-year-old now finds he needs glasses for reading. He also has reconciled himself to once again using glasses at night and while driving. And he said he has learned to tune out the double-vision that flares up when he looks at green lights with his bad eye. "I'm right-eye dominant, and my right eye came out perfect," he said. "If I had my dominant eye 20/30 and my nondominant eye 20/20, I'd be a wreck."

But all in all, Williams considers himself a success, even though he still visits the SurgicalEyes Web site a few times a week. Skiing, golf, and tennis are easier post-LASIK, despite regular eyedrop breaks and the fuzzy double vision in his left eye. "The advantages it gives me for those kind of outweigh the negatives," he said.

The most common complaint voiced by people who aren't as happy with their own LASIK surgery is that they were never fully warned of their individual risks. How does a potential LASIK buyer beware? First, it pays to understand the procedure and its risks.

Truly savvy consumers pay a thorough visit to the Web site of the federal Food and Drug Administration at www.fda.gov/cdrh/lasik. It contains a laundry list of LASIK risk factors in plain language, and explicitly notes that the surgery is risky for people with large pupils, thin corneas, dry eyes, a history of eye diseases, or anyone prone to frequent eyesight changes. It also warns would-be patients to skip LASIK if they are pregnant, have autoimmune problems, or engage in contact sports. Finally, the FDA prominently warns that people are "probably NOT a good candidate for refractive surgery" if they are not "a risk-taker."

A good place to learn more about those risks is SurgicalEyes, where visitors encounter vivid details about what life is like when LASIK and other refractive surgeries fail.

But more typically, consumers rely on word-of-mouth from other patients or advertising from financially motivated information sources. In the Bay Area, such consumers might reasonably expect to find reliable information on the Web site of UC Berkeley's Refractive Surgery Center (www.CalEyeCare.com). Its frequently asked questions page could, to the uninitiated, seem like a good place to start collecting salient details. Concerning LASIK safety, it reads: "Any kind of surgery carries some potential risk, but with LASER VISION CORRECTION surgery, there is a remarkably low rate of complications. Unlike the older, nonlaser procedure known as RK, the computer- controlled VISX 'excimer' laser does not weaken the eye."

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