Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Lasik in Korea

I still remember when I was first diagnosed with nearsightedness. I was 8 years old. My parents were asking me to look them in the eyes, and they saw that my left eye was drifting away to the side – a lazy eye. I went to see the eye doctor and was put into my first pair of glasses, these big ugly nerdy red ones. I looked at my transformed face in the mirror and I cried. The vision in my right eye was perfect... why did I need these ugly things? My father took me outside, handed me a baseball glove and started hitting balls in the air for me to catch. All of a sudden I was catching every one... I finally had proper depth perception.

My final bicycle ride in Seoul with glasses

Flash forward 25 years and my dependence on vision aids had grown considerably. A couple years after starting glasses I learned how to use contact lenses, then my right eye's vision started to decay while the left continued its downward slide. By university time my vision had stabilized at bad in my right eye and worse in my left. But when my contact lenses cooperated, which was most days, everything was crystal clear.

My mother was pushing me to consider Lasik by the mid 2000s but I was not ready. You can always find someone's Lasik horror story on the Internet and I wasn't comfortable with the small chance of considerable downside given what I thought to be limited upside – I already had good vision with contact lenses. Besides, I didn't know anyone who (openly) had tried Lasik.

In Korea my mind shifted and I slowly became open to the idea. For one thing, Lasik seems to be much more commonly done in Korea compared with the US... it seems to fit in well with Korea’s plastic surgery culture. If you can fix your eyes, why not go to the clinic and do it? (after all, you probably already fixed your double-eyelid, and maybe extended your nose, and sharpened your jaw, and...) There are many clinics in Gangnam and the price is quite a bit cheaper than the US... about $1,000-1,500 for both eyes.

Several of the foreigners I knew who worked in Samsung had tried various clinics and all had a positive experience. Armed with some user testimonials from real people that I actually knew, I contacted one of the clinics to set up my initial examination...arranged by KakaoTalk, of course!

Korean celebrities went here ... so it must be safe!
I needed to ditch my contact lenses for a couple weeks before the exam and caught my work colleagues by surprise. "Why are you in new glasses?" they would ask, and then I discovered that many of the Korean colleagues on my floor had also tried Lasik and were happy. I had coffee with my tax accountant to discuss a financial issue... she recommended Lasik. A Korean friend told me she and her siblings had all done Lasik and that she could refer me to her doctor. Everyone was satisfied... 100% of my sample size (maybe 20 people) all recommended Lasik in Korea. Certainly it was not enough for scientific certainty but it was enough people to give me comfort. Some people had less than perfect outcomes, but nothing debilitating, and all said they would do Lasik again.

I chose the B&VIIT Eye Center next to Gangnam Station for my examination. The facility is very clean and modern and the nurse assigned to me spoke pretty good English. I went through a long battery of tests for over an hour, was told that my eyes tested well for Lasik (particularly the corneal thickness), then I saw the doctor who would be performing my procedure and he confirmed the results. I felt good... I set a date 2 weeks later for the surgery and I helped arrange a plane ticket for my girlfriend to visit from Vietnam to aid me with the postoperative recovery.

Then the anxiety started...

I started reading more about Lasik on the Internet. The more you read about Lasik, the more scary outcomes you find...pretty much guaranteed. One thing I observed is that it's extremely difficult to get objective information about Lasik from unbiased sources. Compared with before, I was less concerned about the low probability of blindness or something serious and far more concerned about the moderate probability of persistent side effects after surgery such as dry eyes or halos at night. Some people on the Internet complained that they could no longer drive at night after Lasik... after reading those testimonials I really thought I might be taking a terrible risk! I worried that the luxurious-looking clinic from my checkup was a facade and that the actual operating area was dirty. I worried that maybe my doctor was covering up some terrible outcomes in his record and that maybe he was poorly qualified to treat me. All sorts of paranoia cropped up in my mind.

I contacted many of my reference cases repeatedly and peppered them with questions about their outcomes, but they suggested I didn't need to worry based on their results. I flooded my doctor with questions via KakaoTalk. It was hard to reconcile my 100% happy sample size with what I was reading. After all, Lasik is surgery on the only eyes that you will ever know... you need to get comfortable with the fact that the procedure will cut your eyes open!

Finally my logical side overcame my anxious emotions and I agreed to do the surgery. On a Friday morning, I took off work and went with my girlfriend to the clinic at Gangnam Station. When my name was called I waved her goodbye... and hoped I would see her when I came out! "Are you nervous?", asked the nurse? Yes!

The goofy looking goggles that I wore to prevent myself from rubbing my eyes

My eyes were sedated with some numbing drops, then the doctor examined my eyes one final time. Everything normal, it seemed. I was then escorted to another room, sat in a chair and was asked to close my eyes for a few minutes. It was the operating room, and another patient was sitting under the laser. I was really nervous and was trying to breathe deeply. I could hear the laser and the doctor and nurses at work. I tried not to open my eyes. Once the other patient left I was instructed to take her place lying on the operating table. Super nervous now.

First the doctor used a plastic device to hold my eye open, then I was pointed to a black space to stare at as the device which cuts the flap with a laser was lowered. There is suction and you cannot see anything. When the suction device comes off and the flap of your cornea is removed, your vision goes from blurry to super blurry, but you are grateful that you can see again! Finally comes the laser that reshapes the eye. The doctor asked me to stare at a fuzzy green light and I put all my focus into not looking away. There was no pain. No turning back now. The doctor returns the flap over the eye and I was then helped to a recovery room with comfy chairs to lay down. There were definitely some blurry parts of my vision, but other parts looked pretty good. Maybe the surgery had worked.

After about 20 minutes of rest, where I did everything to just sit still, I then was given an appointment to return the following day and escorted out to where my girlfriend was waiting. I could see her!

We left the facility and went outside to catch a taxi. Everything seemed super bright and I could barely open my eyes. My girlfriend didn't know the way home but I was able to open my eyes enough to direct the taxi. The anaesthesia was wearing off and my eyes were starting to hurt. Don't rub your eyes! In my apartment, my girlfriend helped me lay my mattress on the floor in the darkest part, and I laid down on my back wearing plastic goggles to help prevent me from touching my fragile eyes. My girlfriend thought I looked like an owl.

One of my final days at Samsung Digital City with glasses
My eyes had become rivers gushing with tears. I could barely open my eyes without the tears rushing out. I laid down for the whole afternoon. By evening the discomfort had subsided and I could eat dinner with my girlfriend... with sunglasses on I looked like a movie star in my own house!

More or less I could see 20-20, but with frequent dry eyes my vision was inconsistent. When my eyes were drier my vision was more blurred. I could tell the clarity was there but my eyesight didn't quite feel like it belonged to me yet.

Now I am on the long road to Lasik recovery. There are so many drops to administer and you can't help but think about your eyes constantly. In the mornings my eyes have been very dry and sometimes I go through a whole day without being able to see great. Other days I wonder when I should take out the contact lenses which are not in my eyes! The night halos are still there a bit but they are quite a bit better at 3 weeks after Lasik than before.

One late evening I was talking on Skype with my girlfriend and I felt very tired. Without thinking, something entered my left eye and I rubbed it. "Don't do that!", my girlfriend scolded. I felt bad that I forgot one of the cardinal rules of post-Lasik recovery. Then the next morning my left eye was considerably more blurred than my right eye. "Have I rubbed away the 20-20 vision in my left eye?" I feared. My vision in my left eye has mostly recovered but it is still a little blurry compared to my right eye.

Yesterday I returned to the B&VIIT clinic for my 1-month post-Lasik checkup. The clinic was very busy...it is like a factory with the number of patients it processes in a day, but a luxurious one at that. I had a couple tests and did the test to read the letters with both eyes. My right eye could easily handle the 20-20 line! My left eye struggled more... the letters were a bit blurry but I had enough vision to guess correctly at the letters on the 20-20 line. As my vision in my left eye was -6 diopter before Lasik (right eye was -3.5), I should expect a longer recovery time with my left eye compared to my right. No doctor can guarantee you 20-20 vision with Lasik and the further you start from clear vision the less likely you are to have a 20-20 outcome. An important part of being a Lasik patient is having the right expectations... your vision may not end up perfect, you may have months of dry eyes and you may want to become a shareholder in Allergan Corp. with the number of artificial tears that you will be putting in your eyes. I am 1 month out – my vision is pretty good and continues to improve. Though still recovering I am tentatively happy. Lasik recovery requires a lot of patience and you need to trust the process. My eyes do seem to be healing.

Bottom line: if you are a foreigner considering doing Lasik in Korea, I think your chance of a successful outcome is as high here as anywhere. The doctors have a ton of experience, the facilities are good and you should be able to find a clinic that speaks enough English to communicate with you. If you are not comfortable taking any risk then Lasik is not for you, regardless of whether you try it in Korea or your home country.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to everyone!

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