Refractive eye surgery is pretty well advertised on my installation here in Hawaii. Long-term, it makes more sense to permanently correct the vision of eligible servicemembers than supply them with new glasses (and contacts? some fliers get free contacts?) every year. I knew my summer deployment was probably going to be my last one, so I thought I’d ask if I could get my eyes fixed before I separate next year.
The keyword there is “ask.” I’m in a deploying billet and a flight status. I was prepared for a struggle, one I suspected would result in the negative.
Somehow, it actually worked. It was six months of persistence and administration and, frankly, the kindness of my leadership, and even now that it’s all done, it still seems too good to be true. I got PRK surgery in September, and it was one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received. It changed my life.
Here is the how the whole process went down, from start to finish.
When I first asked permission from my command to get a completely elective surgery, the Officer in Charge said no. I expected this.
A lesson I learned while stationed on the ship was to not see a “no” from the leadership as a closed door. I missed an opportunity that was important to me because I saw a negative as the end of the story, and I was too timid to press. This time, though, I wasn’t; I asked my commander, “What would have to be different for you to change your mind?”
Turns out, when actually asking for quantifiable criteria, he didn’t throw a book at me saying that deploying sailors can’t get an elective surgery. He gave me two completely understandable reasons, one social and one administrative. (The specifics don’t matter.)
I asked if he would hear me out if I could think of compromises. He said he would.
And so I began scheming.
Attend information brief
Tripler Hospital only holds these briefs once or twice a month – and sometimes not at all, just to spice things up. There, you learn about the different types of surgeries: PRK, Lasik, ICL, ICP. You hand over a bunch of paperwork, including a year’s worth of prescriptions to show your vision is stable and documentation proving that you have at least a year left on-island. Then the staff makes an appointment for your first consultation. For this appointment, you have to be out of contacts for a month (to let your eyeballs resume their normal shape, which is something I learned during this brief) and your command’s permission (for the eyeball zapping).
I made my first appointment around my return from deployment, about mid-August. It gave me plenty of time to come up with a plan to convince the OIC to sign that permission slip.
Stay out of contacts for 30 days
I left for deployment not long after attending the information brief, so I figured staying out of contacts would be pretty easy. But a full four months elapsed in between the first consultation and actually getting the surgery (more below). During that time, I came to appreciate how much wearing glasses affected my quality of life, something I completely took for granted while wearing contacts. They slid down my nose when I ran. I had to switch between glasses and goggles at swim practice to read the white board and the clock. The arms of the glasses caused headaches when I wore the headset on the plane. More and more, the idea of being free from glasses (annoying but stylish) and contacts (natural but expensive) seemed like an unimaginable luxury.
In between the information brief and deployment, two important things happened: our OIC turned over to someone new, and I came up with a plan than seemed to satisfy all concerns. I was also annoyingly persistent, like a fly that gets into your house and seems to never ever leave, which ultimately worked in my favor but definitely earned me a fair share of well-deserved eye-rolls. I made it to the first consultation with a commander’s letter in hand (thanks, mom and dad!).
The next step was the see if I was physically eligible for the surgery. This is where things started to move more quickly.
At the first appointment, they went through my medical history and did a ton of eye exams. I learned a lot about how the eye surgery actually corrects vision and how the eye’s topography affects how we see. Very gross and cool. So far, so good. My eyeballs were bad (20/400 vision) but not disqualifyingly bad (I guess your eligibility drops off as you surpass 20/800 vision).
At the second appointment, just two weeks later, they did more eye tests, but with the bonus fun of dilation! I met with a doctor and he double-checked everything, from my paperwork to the actual dozens of eye exams and imagery. We talked about my options for surgery. Fliers are supposed to get Lasik for the shorter recovery time (one month), but I was insistent on PRK (three months recovery) because I’m an asshole. There was a few cautious attempts to change my mind, but I said my command was okay with the longer recovery (thanks, fam), and heck, it’s my eyeballs after all. Then I made an appointment for the surgery – just another two weeks later!
Holy crap, it’s actually happening!
The day of surgery
If eye-stuff bothers you, you might not want to read this next bit. The surgery itself was some dope sci-fi stuff but potentially icky.
Honestly, it was a lot of sitting around a dimly lit staging area while my very patient coworker read comics in the waiting room. And, naturally, I went last, so I got to live vicariously through the excitement of other folks as they emerged from the surgery room like phoenixes from the ashes, delighted and a little blurry.
They numbed my eyes with drops and then laid me flat on a table, positioning the machine directly over me. I was very nervous but the staff was talking and laughing about stupid stuff, so the fact that they weren’t tense and serious about the procedure made me feel less scared, too.
First, the doctor put in eye clamps (A Clockwork Orange style!) and reshaped my cornea. Both of these were the most uncomfortable parts. Imagine someone grinding down your eyeball with an electric toothbrush (sorry), because that’s what it looked and felt like. I worried that my eyeball would be moving all over the place, like I would try to be looking away from the pain, but the pressure of the tool kept it more or less in place. Then they shot a laser into the eye: I looked at a blinking red light for maybe five or seven seconds. It let out a strange smell, like burning hair or flesh, that was vaguely worrying. Next, the doctor washed my eye out with different solutions, one of which was to discourage scarring (the paperwork was sure to mention that this was not tested by the FDA #yolo). This particular medication turned my vision completely white and I was immediately gripped by a nauseating surge of panic. After you just stared into a laser beam, it’s not hard to make the leap to HELP I’M BLIND. The doctor flushed it out, restoring my vision, and put a contact lens on to act as a bandage (also somehow not FDA-approved!), repeated the process on the other eye.
And that was it. It took me longer to describe the surgery here than the time it took to complete the surgery itself. It couldn’t have taken more than ten or fifteen minutes total.
A quarter of an hour on a table with the doctor and his staff joking above me. A little bit of discomfort. A coworker to drive me home and a week off from work to recover. Three months of no flying. That was all it took, and my life was forever changed.
First week of recovery
Maybe you’ve heard about PRK surgery recovery. If it sounded really bad, it’s all true!
The first 24 hours were fine. I couldn’t see well, but there wasn’t much pain. I puttered around the house more or less as usual. A week off from work seemed excessive.
The next three days were a whole ‘nother story.
If you wear contacts, imagine being stuck in the dirtiest, grimiest lenses you can imagine. And you can’t take them out because your eyeball is an open, gaping wound. It’s worse than that. If you don’t wear contacts, imagine a combination of soap and sand in your eyes at the same time, and no amount of eye drops or tears or blinking brings relief. It’s worse than that, too. The only comparable experience was OC spray, but even the devil’s capsicum goes away with water and a short time.
I began to appreciate the impossibility of ignoring eye pain. I could distract myself from other varieties of discomfort pretty easily, but the eyes are so hard to ignore. Looking at things hurt. Not looking at things hurt. Keeping my eyes open felt dry and scratchy and my vision was so blurry that it made just as much sense to be blind-folded. Keeping my eyes closed left me dwelling inescapably on how much my eyes hurt.
Around the third or fourth day, I lost my near-sightedness. This was alarming because I’ve never had a problem seeing things close; it was always my distance vision that was absolute trash, and by distance I mean anything farther than a few feet in front of me. This lasted for a while – maybe three weeks? – with varying severity. It was hard to see the computer both at home and at work. I read books pressed up to my nose, like a nerd! Inconvenience had replaced the pain, and it was a pretty solid trade-off.
I also had to use a carousel of eyedrops throughout the day, some hourly, some four times a day. Putting them in the refrigerator made them feel absolutely divine when administered, like the purest, most refreshing dew. One of the drops always left a terrible taste in my mouth, which was an alarming reminder that all of your face machinery is interconnected. That’s right, I was tasting with my eyes. It was super gross.
Just in case someone is reading this who had PRK and are worried that they are going blind: you’re not! I hear you protesting: but I had the surgery five, six weeks ago! Breathe, keep reading. You’re going to be okay.
(People had warned me of this beforehand and I still freaked out a little.)
First month of recovery
Even after a few weeks of recovery, my vision wasn’t great. I struggled seeing people’s faces from afar (I don’t need help being more socially awkward, thanks much), signs on the highway (not at all dangerous), my TV across the room (harmful to quality of life). It felt exactly like when I was in elementary school and a teacher, noticing me squinting pathetically at the blackboard, gently asked if I might need glasses. So, blurry but functional, definitely not ideal. I worried that this was going to the extent of my healing.
At my one-month follow-up, they tested my vision and said I was close to 20/20. I was skeptical but they said to give it time. What else was there to do? I gave it time.
Three months post-surgery
This is where I am right now! I have my last follow-up soon.
I am all done with the menagerie of eyedrops, with one exception: I need the lubricating drops as soon as I wake up when my eyes are unbearably dry, but that’s the only time the drops feel truly necessary. I use them before bed and after being outside or in the water, too, but just for comfort and precaution. I was getting really terrible headaches for a few weeks (adjusting to new vision?), but generally I got ahead of them by pounding a ton of water, popping a painkiller, and keeping the brightness low on screens. My night vision is a little worse than it was before the surgery – I see soft halos around lights like I did when I was wearing contacts that needed to be switched out – but it isn’t severe enough for me to be concerned. My left eye is so sharp that I feel like God’s most perfect hawk, my right eye not quite so, but as time goes on they seem to be getting closer to meeting in the middle.
Which is to say, it was all totally worth it.
When I’m getting ready for bed, I still reach up to my face to pinch out the contact lenses, and then I remember: oh yeah, this is just my eyes now. My vision has been bad since I was a child; three months of clarity hasn’t been enough to undo lifelong habits. I still catch myself gazing around in awe, appreciating how everything is so clear – completely without aid. I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity. When I came back to work and thanked my leadership for letting me get the surgery, I got choked up, very emotional, with gratitude.
Hell, I got choked up now just thinking about it, how it would have been so easy, even expected, for my commander to say no. There were so many reasons to not let me: losing an otherwise healthy flier for three months, arguments it caused with our associated command, pure administrative inconvenience, potential health and safety concerns, the fact that I am separating from the Navy next year. But she said yes, and it changed my life more radically than I know how to express. My commander’s choice to improve my quality of life despite the risks made a huge impact on me both physically and emotionally. It’s a gift I get to carry with me for the rest of my life. I’m not sure I’ve felt more grateful for anything else, ever, and against all odds and maybe even against better guidance, my leadership in the United States Navy gave that to me.
So should you get refractive eye surgery, if you think you might be eligible?
God, yes. Don’t think twice. It’s a little bit of inconvenience and pain for a lifetime of clarity. It was so worth it.