Eyes Wide Cut

LASIK surgery promised to free me of the glasses I’d worn since childhood—but I’d have to have a tiny incision in each cornea. Was it worth it? Yes.

IT’S THE AFTERNOON RUSH HOUR, and Austin’s MoPac expressway is clogged with traffic. My wife, Jessica, is behind the wheel, nudging us, inch by inch, toward the New Horizons Vision Correction Center at Seton Northwest Hospital, where I will undergo LASIK eye surgery, a.k.a. my “miracle.” That’s what everyone calls LASIK—a miracle.

But our slow progress has given me time to think, which is not good because what I’m thinking is this: Given that the operation involves slicing the eye open with what amounts to a tiny band saw, the real miracle is that anyone in his right mind would ever willingly undergo it. In fact, for weeks now I’ve had a movie scene stuck in my head: the opening of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou, in which an eyeball is sliced in half by a straight razor. It is one of the most horrific scenes in the history of cinema, and I’m fixated on it, which puts me in a mood not appropriate to the miracle at hand.

So,” I grouse, surveying the giant parking lot that MoPac has become. “This is why I’m getting eye surgery? To see this more clearly?” Actually, to see this more clearly is precisely why I’m getting LASIK (which stands for “laser in-situ keratomileusis”). Not this this, but the this that is my hometown.

I’ve been wearing glasses since the third grade, nearly four decades ago. I’ve always hated them. They gnawed into the back of my ears. They gouged into my nose and constantly slid down, causing me to spend half my life with an index finger in my face pushing them back up. And sometimes they broke, as they did the time I was playing basketball a couple of years ago and I turned around and got a face full of ball.

But the real problem was the vision itself. The frames created a border around the world. And even though I cleaned my glasses constantly, I could never get them quite clean enough; my view of life was usually dirty and smudged, as if I were looking out from behind a windshield that’s just come through a West Texas rainstorm. I wanted to see the world clearly, without smudges, without scratches, without an ever-present frame around it.

But the cost of LASIK was daunting. The procedure runs about $4,000 or more for both eyes. And because it is considered cosmetic, most insurance companies won’t pick up the tab. Then there was the little matter of safety. There is no recorded case in the United States of blindness resulting from LASIK. And complications occur in only 5 percent of LASIK surgeries; the vision of the vast majority of those patients is later corrected to, at worst, 20/40, which is legal driving vision. (A word of explanation about these numbers: The higher the second one, the worse your vision. If you have, say, 20/600 vision, you’d have to stand within twenty feet of an object to see it clearly, while a person with perfect, or 20/20, vision could see it from six hundred feet.) All things considered, a worst-case scenario of 20/40 was pretty great. Still, these were my eyes we were talking about. In the deep recesses of my mind the thought nagged, “What if something goes horribly wrong?”

I deliberated for months. Thinking about the procedure one afternoon, my mind wandered as I gazed out my living-room window. I’d heard of people who traveled to foreign lands to undergo LASIK so they’d wake up and see an exotic landscape. I would wake up at home. I’d see the live oak trees, the scraggly grass of my front lawn, and the Xeriscaped yard of a neighbor across the street. The prospect of seeing the place where I choose to live—and of being in some inexplicable way more involved with it because the shield of my glasses would no longer separate me from it—filled me with trembling anticipation. I decided that instant to have the LASIK surgery.

The procedure has emerged as the darling of ophthalmology since it became available to the general public in 1995. According to the technology and management consulting firm Arthur D. Little, the number of eye surgeries performed in the United States has soared from about 80,000 in 1996 to almost 900,000 this year, the growth due exclusively to LASIK.

One of the most prominent new LASIK fans is Troy Aikman. The Dallas Cowboys quarterback, who started wearing contacts when he was fourteen, had the procedure done last February. “I was 20/600,” he says. “I couldn’t even read the big E on the eye chart.” LASIK improved Aikman’s eyes from 20/600 to 20/20. “He sat up [after the operation] and read the clock on the wall,” says Dr. Harvey Carter, the Dallas ophthalmologist who performed the surgery. “His first word was ‘wow.’” Carter chuckles. “This procedure definitely has the wow factor.” Aikman says he had the surgery to be rid of the inconvenience of contacts: “The thing I like best is being able to watch TV at night and fall asleep on the couch and know that I won’t have contacts stuck to my eyes.”

Indeed, such pedestrian considerations seem to be the main reasons most people have LASIK. I had watched a video on the procedure that showed people skiing and mountain climbing and in-line skating, all activities they presumably couldn’t do before having eye surgery. Message: LASIK surgery will change your life. But I’d be satisfied if I could just go swimming and find the spot where I’d left my towel without wandering around like Mr. Magoo.

I discussed eye surgery with my optometrist, Dr. M. D. Jackman, who during an earlier visit had told me I needed trifocals for my aging nearsighted eyes. He ran some tests, including making a “map” of the shape and condition of my corneas on a computer. The cornea, the clear membrane at the front of the eye, provides about two thirds of the eye’s focusing power. Myopia, or nearsightedness,

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