Gor blimey* – eye treatments can be dangerous

As far back as I can remember, my grandfather was always reading or writing. He’d send off letters to Punch magazine back when Punch not only existed, but mattered; he’d get poems published in national newspapers; he’d write articles about homeopathy (one of his great passions, and a subject about which he’s forgotten more than I could ever hope to learn)… and when he wasn’t doing that his head was buried in magazines, newspapers or books.

More than a decade ago, he started to lose his sight – possibly because of a congenital eye problem (my father and I both have to have regular checkups to look for any potential damage) but more likely due to the inevitable damage of decades of heavy smoking. He went for surgery (I think it was laser surgery) to correct the problem; it went wrong and effectively blinded him. There were no more letters. No more poems. No more articles about homeopathy.

As much as I hate relying on glasses – and I do, more than words can articulate – I’ve never been able to take the step of getting surgery on my eyes, even if it’s the relatively non-invasive procedures performed by lasers. That’s partly because of good-old-fashioned male distrust of doctors, partly because of my grandfather’s problems, and partly because of my own experiences with contact lenses. I gave up wearing contacts several years ago because no matter what I tried, they couldn’t completely correct my vision; while on paper they were absolutely perfect and within the various tolerances required by opticians, in my eyes they weren’t effective enough. With contact lenses I can’t really read, I can’t really write, I can’t really watch films – three of my favourite things. With eye surgery, if it wasn’t 100% effective I would have all of those problems without the option of slapping on a pair of specs to correct them.

Occasionally I did manage to put aside my fear of doctors, and I explained my grandfather’s problems to myself as the result of ageing, smoking and of undergoing a relatively new procedure – a kind of optical guinea pig. But the tolerances thing, that was different. I read up on the various eye treatments, the laser this and the microkeratome that; without fail, they couldn’t offer a 100% success rate. The best they could do was offer 90-something-percent success within certain tolerances. The same tolerances that made contact lenses unworkable for me.

Over the years I’ve continued to toy with the idea of corrective eye surgery, because vanity is a powerful and terrible thing. But the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that it was too risky. There are risks in all procedures, of course, even going to the dentist. But a 99% successful dental operation is still successful; 99% successful eye surgery means your vision is impaired or your eyes are damaged. I read reports of constant haloes, of mistiness, of painful eyes, of people who could no longer drive at night.

According to Surgical Eyes – which, rather ironically, is a bloody eyesore – the problem isn’t the surgery itself; it’s poor patient screening. Some people simply shouldn’t have eye surgery, but the site suggests that greed or perhaps, arrogance leads surgeons to carry out the procedure on people whose eyes are not suitable for the treatment. The site has been created by people for whom the surgery has caused very severe vision problems.

If you’re squeamish, skip the rest of this blog entry.

Sandy Keller had LASIK surgery, and only found out months after the treatment that she should never have been accepted for treatment. If that wasn’t bad enough, the surgery went wrong.

The microkeratome blade jammed in my first eye during my LASIK procedure, and while I can blame nearly everything else that happened to me on my surgeon’s inexperience, the blade jam was an unforeseen equipment failure, which is known to occur in a certain number of cases. My surgeon should have stopped and never performed LASIK on me that day. Instead, I was never told of the malfunction and did not know about it until over a year after my surgery.

Keller has uploaded various photos to her web site that show what her vision’s like now.

Of course, there are plenty of happy eye surgery patients for whom the treatment means a permanent bye-bye to spectacles or contact lenses. But there are plenty of unhappy patients, too. Keller writes:

Happy LASIK patients are ecstatic, noted Dr. Arthur Epstein in the January 2002 issue of Review of Optometry. “But unsuccessful patients exist in a permanently altered waking nightmare from which there is presently no escape,” he wrote. Epstein warned that LASIK is still experimental surgery, and in hindsight could ultimately prove to be a physician-induced health crisis. Despite voices of warning from Epstein and others, the money machine trudges onward.

I think I’ll stick with my specs.

[As ever, there’s an interesting discussion on the subject over at MetaFilter, which is where I found the Surgical Eyes link. The discussion includes posts from people who’ve had various forms of eye surgery and who are delighted with the results.]

* The rather mild epithet is a corruption of “may god blind me”.