Living with LASIK

A Life Altering Hardship

On January 25, 2007 I had custom LASIK on both eyes. What was supposed to be an improvement to my quality of life instead has turned out to be a life altering hardship. I know now that I could have and should have been screened out as a poor candidate due to my well known pre-existing condition of poor tear film. Since I never went in for a vision “touch up”, that my surgeon is regarding me as a LASIK success story. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The day after surgery my eyes felt like I had slept in old contacts that I wanted desperately to remove. I wasn’t too worried – I expected some dryness, and although I was extremely uncomfortable, I was most concerned about my vision issues. The pain, I thought, was temporary. The fact that I had lost best correctable vision and had halos around lights was what weighed heavy on my mind that first month. These problems too, I was told, would improve with time, along with the dryness.

Two months later the eye pain and constant need for drops had only increased, and my vision stayed the same. I suffered continual agonizing erosions on my cornea, and couldn’t sleep through the night without waking several times to lubricate my eyes. We took the kids on a trip to Disneyland, and I remember thinking that I must be the saddest person at the “Happiest Place on Earth”. I sat in the car in the parking lot and watched my kids play on the beach because I couldn’t bear to feel the wind on my eyes. What had I done? When was it going to get better?

Traveling the second opinion circuit

As the months wore on, my pain just increased. The erosions continued, and I also developed intense burning in the nasal corners of my eyes. I had tried every possible treatment modality – conventional and unconventional, specific and holistic, mind and body, eastern and western, and relief was minimal. The time I could stand having my eyes open I spent on the computer, desperately searching for something new to ease my misery. I went from doctor to doctor in my city and “experts” long distance, trying to find help so I could get my life back. It became clear to me how little is really known about LASIK dry eye.

My own surgeon had handed me a box of drops, told me to tape my eyelids closed at night, and to blink better. He was unimpressed with the condition of my eyes. This was the treatment I got from a very experienced and respected surgeon, who had been my doctor since 1991. When I tried to convey my level of misery to him, he asked if I was feeling pain ‘right then’. I said yes, of course, and he told me that was impossible, because he had put numbing drops in my eyes. I wanted to scream at him that the numbing drops didn’t do ANYTHING for me, but I realized it was a waste of time. Not only was he unable to help me, but it was obvious that he didn’t even believe me. He thought I was an exaggerating kook. All I could do was to go home and cry.

Maximal symptoms, minimal findings

Months later I read a quote from a prominent dry eye specialist in Eye World Magazine. He said that LASIK dry eye patients were” the last people you wanted to see on a busy day”, and that they had “maximal symptoms and minimal findings”. How can one expect friends and family to understand your level of pain when even doctors are unsympathetic? I quit using the term “dry eye”, because it sounds so benign. It sure did to me before LASIK. Instead I told people my eyes hurt. After a while you just don’t say anything about your eyes. Listening to friends talk about how so-and-so had LASIK and they never had a bit of problems isn’t what you want to hear when you want to just grab the ice out of their glass and put it on your eyelids.

During the months after LASIK I lost so much weight that I didn’t have enough body fat to maintain my menstrual period for five months. I was barely functioning physically, and emotionally I began to spiral downward in hopelessness. I had made a bad choice, no one could help me, and it seemed that no one understood the level of my pain – not my doctors, not even my husband or parents. My mother had to fly out last summer twice to take care of my children for three weeks at a time. I spent most of my time on the couch with a wet rag over my sore, red eyes. I couldn’t make it through my daughter’s gymnastics recital. Our anniversary, Mother’s Day and my birthday, occasions that used to bring me joy, were just reminders of what I had lost since the previous year’s celebration.

I could not escape the intense burning, even with my eyes closed. I didn’t want to get out of bed and face the day. If this was what life was going to be like, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to go on living. I begin to think about death being the only escape from the misery, and obsessed about it. Along with the guilt of choosing to have the ill fated elective surgery, I had to live with the guilt of what effect this was having on my husband and children, and the guilt that escaping the pain seemed to be more of a focus to me than being around for my family. I was an empty shell of my pre-LASIK self, in my own personal hell.

I knew I needed help, and so I saw my pastor, a psychologist, a hypnotist and finally, a psychiatrist. I got on an antidepressant and eventually became a functional, if not a happy or comfortable person again. The antidepressants caused many side effects and I didn’t like the thought of dependence on them, so after several months I decided to gradually take myself off the medicine. Unfortunately, about six weeks later I began the downward cycle again. My husband actually called an ambulance one horrible night, because he was so worried about my state of mind. I got back on the antidepressant, and will likely stay on it indefinitely.

A psychological toll

What causes a poor post LASIK outcome to lead to depression and suicidal thoughts in a formerly stable, happy person? Many, many things. I list some of them here:

Having to live with chronic pain and missing out on things you love in life, or enduring them while you hurt is bad enough; the lack of support from doctors when things go wrong brings on a sense of hopelessness. An otherwise successful, independent person becomes dependant on those that often times just shrug their shoulders or turn their backs. I am not a flake or nut case. I have two engineering degrees, graduated first in my class, had a successful 15 year career, am in the 22nd year of my marriage, and have two beautiful children who are my joy. I still manage to run 20 miles a week, and try my best to get on with my “normal” life, at least in my role as mother and wife. I’ve bounced back from plenty of hard times. Ten years ago I had cancer. Although it was scary and hard, I got through the surgery and treatment without needing an antidepressant for that. It didn’t shatter my life. Doctors and friends and family understand how to deal with cancer.

Swept under the rug

There are lots of things I’d rather be doing, lots of things I’d rather spend my money on than meeting with doctor after doctor, hoping someday someone will be able to help me. I am NOT a nut case looking for attention, but I AM a statistic of poor outcome. A statistic that got recorded absolutely no where. How can the data that I based my decision to have LASIK on be correct when people like me are swept under the rug? I still feel awful, have to constantly lubricate my sore eyes, I don’t see as well as I used to, and yet, my experience is nothing more than folklore. I have to wonder how many more people like me are out there, being kept out of the LASIK publicity because of their doctor’s denial of their symptoms.

Every single day we make decisions and take risks based on information that we have. I made the choice to have LASIK based on trust of my doctors, the apparent safety of the procedure, and all the glowing statistics on patient satisfaction, which seem to be available everywhere you look. If I had been ‘screened out’ because of my pre-existing poor tear film (that was well known to both my surgeon and managing O.D.), if I had been given even a hint of discouragement by either doctor, I am quite certain I would not have taken the chance on LASIK. I would not now be living with the permanent physical and emotional hardship that resulted from this surgery. Knowing the true risk is likely what has kept all of the seven ophthalmologists and six optometrists I have seen since my surgery still wearing their contacts and glasses.