Millions of Americans have less-than-perfect vision. When they grow tired of glasses and contact lenses, many turn to Lasik, an outpatient surgery that corrects eyesight — nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism — by reshaping the cornea with a laser.
What’s it really like to go through it? TODAY's series "What It's Like" looks at common medical procedures through the eyes of a patient.
Syd Weiler, an illustrator in Wheeling, West Virginia, had the surgery in February. Modestly nearsighted, she’d been wearing glasses almost her whole life.
“My eyesight was not horribly bad, but just bad enough,” Weiler, 25, told TODAY. “I would wear glasses from as soon as I woke up to when I went to bed.”
She didn’t like wearing contact lenses, so she began thinking about Lasik a couple of years ago when she started traveling frequently and didn’t want the burden of glasses anymore. Weiler’s mother successfully underwent the surgery 15 years ago, so Weiler decided to go for it, too. It would be a birthday present to herself.
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After her eye doctor confirmed she was a candidate for Lasik, Weiler signed up for a free consultation at a clinic in Pittsburgh and quickly scheduled the procedure.
Preparing was simple: She was told not to wear contacts before the surgery, which wasn’t an issue in her case. Contact lenses change the shape of the cornea so it’s best to stop wearing them for at least two weeks before the initial evaluation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration noted.
Weiler didn’t wear any make-up on the day of the surgery. Patients should stop using creams, lotions, perfumes and make-up the day before the procedure to reduce the risk of infection, the FDA advised.
Patients also can’t drive right after the surgery, so her then-boyfriend would drive Weiler to and from the clinic, which was about an hour-and-a-half away.
Getting mentally ready for Lasik was “a week of anxiety,” Weiler recalled. She worried about the worst-case scenario of losing her vision, and the possible side-effects.
The FDA approved Lasik in 1998 and 600,000-800,000 patients undergo the procedure in the U.S. each year, the agency estimated. The overall complication rate is low, the American Academy of Ophthalmology noted. Recent government studies found fewer than 1 percent of patients experienced "difficulty performing their usual activities" following Lasik surgery.
But up to 46 percent of participants who had no problems before Lasik reported at least one visual symptom three months after surgery — most often seeing halos around lights. Up to 28 percent experienced dry eyes. Other complications can include double or blurry vision; difficulty seeing at night; and light sensitivity. The side-effects often disappear over time, but they can be permanent in some cases and may be so bothersome or painful that people have committed suicide, The New York Times reported in June.
Still, more than 95 percent of participants were satisfied with their vision following Lasik surgery in the government studies.
Weiler was nervous but believed the odds were in her favor.
“I was scared, but I figured if it went that well for [my mom] that long ago, it can’t be that scary,” she said. “I just started thinking about how routine it was.”
The day of the surgery:
Weiler received a prescription for two Valium pills. She wore comfortable clothes that wouldn’t itch or be too tight.
At the clinic, her eyes were checked again to confirm nothing had changed. She was instructed to take the first Valium pill and wait.
She was then called into the procedure room, where she received a hair net and lay down on a table that looked “like half of an MRI machine.” Her head was placed on a head rest that didn’t allow her to turn her neck and the surgeon inserted a speculum into her right eye to hold the eyelid open.
“This was the most pain in the whole procedure and it was just a tiny pinch,” Weiler said.
"I realized that the smell I could smell was my own eyeball burning. I was pretty nervous; I was also pretty spaced out on Valium.”
Numbing drops were placed into her eye and she knew what was next: The surgeon would cut a flap in her cornea to allow the laser to remove specific tissue. “It was a very, very quick motion,” she said. “I didn't feel anything at all.”
Everything became completely blurry and she was asked to stare at a light on the machine placed right above her. She heard a loud buzzing noise and the light became very bright — this was the moment the laser began reshaping her cornea.
Weiler advised others going through Lasik to hold their breath for a few seconds at this point.
“I realized that the smell I could smell was my own eyeball burning,” Weiler recalled. “I was pretty nervous; I was also pretty spaced out on Valium.”
The corneal flap was then put back in place and the procedure was repeated on her left eye. The entire surgery was over in 15-20 minutes. Weiler was asked to sit up, open her eyes and look at a clock on the wall. Everything looked a bit discolored, but Weiler could see the clock very clearly. Still, her first instinct was to immediately close her eyes.
She was led back to a waiting room and told to sit with her eyes closed for 10 minutes. Then, a doctor checked her again. She was free to go.
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Weiler’s eyes felt “very uncomfortable” right after the surgery, as if something was in them, so she wanted to keep them shut. The clinic gave her a sleep mask to prevent her from rubbing her eyes at night and wrap-around sunglasses to deal with light sensitivity.
Her doctor recommended going to sleep as soon as possible, so she and her boyfriend rented a hotel room in downtown Pittsburgh. She took the second Valium pill and napped for four hours, waking up that evening. Already, her vision seemed perfect.
“Everything was so crystal clear…. I think I cried, I was so happy,” Weiler recalled.
Her eyes were a bit bloodshot and she could see the flap incisions — a very thin red line on the white of her eye right above the iris.
"Everything was so crystal clear. I think I cried, I was so happy."
After-care included antibiotic drops for the next two weeks and artificial tears for lubrication. She was also instructed not to wear eye-make up for two weeks. Weiler had a check-up the next day and then three months later.
Today, her vision is 20/15 in both eyes, or sharper than average, she said. It took about a month for things to return completely to normal. Her eyes still sometimes get dry, so she uses lubricating drops about once a day — down from several times a day right after surgery. Otherwise, she has no problems and is happy with the results.
“It was literally the best money I ever spent,” Weiler said.
The average cost of Lasik is about $4,500, according to the American Refractive Surgery Council. Most medical insurance doesn’t cover it.
After discounts and special offers at her clinic, Weiler paid $3,100 for the procedure.