Laser eyes

Today was the big day. We got up early and hopped in a tuk-tuk to Lumpini Park near where the clinic is located. On the way we ended up in an argument with our driver who wanted to take us via a shop where he had a “discount card” he could give us. We refused – several times – his “80 Baht, one stop” cries with responses of “80 Baht, no stops!”. He ditched us into another tuk-tuk who took us where we wanted to go for 80 Baht with no stops. We gave the driver 100 and told him to keep the change for not being a prat.

After a stroll round the park (where I got shouted at by a policeman for playing with one of the water features) we located the building containing TRSC, the people who would, with any luck, perform surgery on my eyes. Yup, I was getting my eyes lasered. Eek.

First impressions were dodgy as we got in the wrong lift and found the place through a car park. However, once inside, all worries vanished. They have beautiful offices and attentive, courteous staff. I was signed in and placed through a battery of tests from the usual “read the chart” eyesight tests and “puff of air to make you blink” ones to weird laser scanners. Finally, I was popped in front of a PC for 45 minutes to go through some informational Flash presentations that put forward all the details of LASIK surgery as well as every possible risk and side effect.

Next, I was given a slip to take to a nearby hospital for an HIV test. For them to proceed with surgery they had to be sure my immune system was top notch. HIV effectively scuppers this, so a test is mandatory and also very cheap in Thailand. The hospital we went to was just around the corner and they did the test in around two hours – long enough for us to grab some lunch while we waited. No surprise, the test came back negative and we returned to TRSC with the paper proving it.

Unfortunately, when I arrived, I was told that I was not a candidate for the surgery. My cornea is 10 microns too thin. Which sounds like an incredibly small amount, but given the scales they’re working on, I’d rather they played safe. Further tests were carried out to be sure, but the results were the same. No go.

LASIK is a fairly recent procedure (around 10 years old) and involves cutting a flap in the cornea (the coating over your pupil), flipping it to one side, lasering the inside, then popping the flap back in place. It allows for faster healing and better results. It also sounds rather yucky and everyone I know who’s had it has been freaked out by the slicing of they eyeball and the movement of the flap.

An alternative was offered – the older PRK (Photorefractive Keratectomy) procedure that preceded LASIK. This involves dissolving the cornea in front of the pupil rather than flipping it out of the way, performing the same laser procedure them popping a contact lens in front to protect the eye as the cornea re-grows. It takes longer to recover from and involves more discomfort.

But I went for it.

The doctors, nurses and admin staff were all superb. While everything felt routine, I at no point felt like I was just another patient on a conveyor belt. Comfy massage chairs to lie on as I waited for eye drops to work; doctors who explained everything before and as it happened; nurses who walked me from place to place when I couldn’t see. All superb and very calming. Despite my misgivings beforehand I can honestly say that at no single point after I said “go for it” did I feel nervous or scared. Not once. And a huge amount of the reason for this is down to the attitude and professionalism of the staff.

The actual operation was a weird experience – the first surgery I’ve ever undergone outside of my mouth. I was rolled into the theatre after having “numbing drops” placed in my eyes to ensure they could feel nothing, and popping some valium as a pre-emptive painkiller. Clamps were put in place to keep my eyelids open and sheeting put over my face to cover everything aside from the eyes. My right eye was done first. A small funnel was placed over the eye to restrict the fluid which dripped into it to the area immediately over the pupil. After a count, the cornea was dissolved and swept away using a very small spatula. Bear in mind that I could see all this, but feel nothing. It was like watching it through a window.

Once the surface was deemed clean enough, I had to stare at a little green dot while the laser warmed up then sparkly lights filled my vision. And a burning smell filled my nostrils. I’d been warned of this, but it didn’t bother me in all honesty. If you’re going for the surgery and think it might, then simply wait till they count down and breathe out slowly through your nose as the laser fires – it only lasts 10 or 20 seconds.

After that, on to the other eye. As they placed the funnel I immediately said “I can feel that” which was greeted by surprised voices. I just blast through painkillers and anaesthetics quite quickly. I don’t know why, but it’s the same when I have fillings at the dentist. They applied more drops, waited a while then tried again. All fine, and the procedure was the same as the other eye.

Each eye had a contact lense placed on it. This would prevent dust etc entering and causing any infection. They’d have to remain in place for 4 days. All done, I was taken outside to lie for a while before having my eyes covered with plastic “bug eye” devices which were taped in place. These were to restrict the amount of light entering my eyes, but still allow me to see. Sort of.

This was where Leah was to be an absolute godsend. I couldn’t see too well. At times, I couldn’t see at all. She was my “guide dog” for want of a better phrase, guiding me everywhere and making sure I didn’t… well… die. Or cause a major accident by slipping off a kerb into traffic. Little things like that. Armed with a bag filled with drugs and eye drops (and drugs in eye drops), we departed.

What else better to do after having lasers scorching your eyes than grab a beer? I felt I’d earned it, so we went to the Bull’s Head. Billy was there and it’s always nice to see a friendly face. A shame I could only just make his out. We munched on the gorgeous double-fried beef strips and had a couple of Strongbows. A mate of Billy’s bought us a round simply because I “had the balls to come out in public wearing those things on your face”. Score.

Well, it’s not like I could see if anyone stared at me. As it happens, Leah told me, apart from children, none of the Thais we passed gave me a second glance. Only westerners ogled at the bug-eyed freak.

We got back to the hotel fairly late on, and I opted not to take the sleeping pills or valium. I felt OK, the eyes weren’t bothering me too much, and I was tired after the beer. I had a quick sponge down (I couldn’t shower or wash may hair until the contacts were removed) and collapsed into a deep sleep. Either the beer or the stress I hadn’t realised I’d undergone caught up.

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