Hey, Four Eyes!

I’VE BEEN AS NEARSIGHTED as Mr. Magoo from birth. In grade school, I never had to be ordered to sit in the front of the class. I couldn’t imagine why any kid would head for the back, where they would never be able to see. In senior high, a boy on a date took off my glasses, but instead of saying, “Really, Miss Jones, you look beautiful,” he said, “Wow! You have eyes!” I guess those lenses were thick.

LASIK didn’t tempt me, since I had worn glasses since third grade and they felt as natural to me as skin. But my eyesight was worsening, my optometrist told me he couldn’t improve my vision enough to make me less crabby about it, and the permutations of eyewear were getting too numerous to schlep around in a normal-sized handbag.

When a new prescription for contacts, readers, and bifocals cost nearly as much as the surgery, I called the Chu Laser Institute in Edina. It’s very swank, a serious upgrade from the cramped waiting room I was used to at my pediatrician. Staffing is swank, too: There is enough of it, for one thing, and each person I met remembered my name, something there isn’t enough of in health care.

I met with Dr. Ralph Chu, who told me the risks, had my eyes tested, and said the results reported I was a good LASIK candidate. I handed my credit card to the nice lady from the business office, we scheduled surgery for the following Friday, and I went home with two prescriptions for eye medications to get filled during the week.

I brought them with my on surgery day. I had never taken Valium before in my life, but I said “yes” when the nurse offered one. I thought it had no effect. My husband said it did. His arguing would normally have irritated me, but I felt calm, so heck, maybe the Valium was working.

Chu put drops in my eyes to anesthetize and dilate them. He explained everything he did before he did it, a lovely trait in a physician. One eye at a time, he “slipped in” a device to hold my lids open. I never saw this invention; in my imagination, it did not look friendly. It didn’t hurt, but I had to do a little yoga breathing to handle my inability to blink.

To slice the cornea (which also doesn’t hurt, though it sounds nasty), a large slicer machine was passed over my eye. I felt like roast beef at Byerly’s deli counter. After the slice happened, everything got even blurrier, which I appreciated. I couldn’t see the laser or any machinery, which was A-OK with me. Chu said I would now see pulses of red light for a few seconds. Then, he gently folded the cornea flap back in place and stroked the eye with some sort of soft cloth. Then he took the lid separator out—a relief, since it was starting to feel scratchy.

My right eye, needing less correction, went even faster. Total time? Under 15 minutes. I sat up and, from across the room, saw—well, sort of—my husband. He was still blurry, but a more defined blur. Magic.

Following Chu’s advice, I wore goofy-looking goggles to keep from rubbing my eyes while they healed, so I didn’t feel glasses-free (or more glamorous) yet. He told me to go home and rest, so I did. I was so fascinated by being able to see the television from the bed without glasses that I watched a movie, though my vision was still too fuzzy to follow the action very well. By Monday, I was back at work.

Reading and writing close up was out of focus, but Chu told me it was likely I’d still need reading glasses more or less permanently after LASIK. I went to Walgreen’s and bought a pair. Now I could manage close work and I could see at a distance just fine. And there were odd little pleasures, like waking up able to see without hunting for glasses, and pulling a turtleneck over my head without getting it caught on the bows.

But there was a problem. My mid-distance vision—the distance, say, from my eye to my sock drawer—was ill-defined. After a day or two of having to ask my children to come help me dress, I handled this challenge maturely by throwing a tantrum, and my socks, around the room. “I just traded nearsightedness for farsightedness!” I yelled. On the way to work, I went back to Walgreen’s and bought five pairs of reading glasses in varying strengths. “I still have a purse full of glasses!” I wailed. My husband called Chu.

No worries, said Chu. LASIK corrects the eye, but then the eye tries to go back to its former shape. After another week or so, chances were good this problem would be gone. “And if it’s not,” said Chu, “I’ll fix it.”

It got better, but it still bugged me. I didn’t want to complain, but Chu pushed me to be honest. “I am so sure I can make this right,” he said. “Why be irritated? Let’s fix it.” The second surgery was even faster than the first.

Today, I use my reading glasses only occasionally. I can now see into my sock drawer just fine, thank you, though some close-up and mid-range tasks, like putting on makeup, require using different mirrors set at different lengths from my nose. But hey, I now can at least see my nose, which used to be weighed down by those rose-tinted aviator glasses in the ’60s and those cat-eye rhinestones in the ’50s.

And now, with near 20/20 vision, I can finally pass the one test in school I always flunked: E, F, P, T, O, Z…

This appeared in Minnesota Monthly magazine, May 2002, p. 75

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