It’s a Wednesday in mid-November when I find myself in a dimly-lit room having a head and shoulder massage to the sound of ambient music while occasionally dipping my hand into a bowl of chocolate. Afterwards, I’m asked to select a cuddly toy from a pile and I lie down on a bed and brace myself.
I’m at the London Vision Clinic on Harley Street about to undergo laser eye surgery, and this is not the set up I was expecting. In fact, Professor Reinstein isn’t the type of surgeon you’d expect at all. A saxophonist in his spare time and preferring to put his patients at ease with hypnotism rather than Diazepam, you really have to meet him to believe him.
He’s an incredibly charming and confident man, who isn’t shy about letting you know how good he is in his field; in fairness it’s that sort of confidence you crave when you’re discussing an eye operation and it manages to put me even more at ease.
My relationship with glasses has been lifelong. I first started wearing them when I was 12 and, as a result, there were many reasons I’d never been interested in surgery. For one, I always felt I looked better in glasses; I had worn them for so long they were practically a part of my face. My prescription also wasn’t particularly high (-2.5 in each eye). But after a recently-lasered friend waxed lyrical about the benefits of the surgery, I was keen to try it, particularly given I’m a regular gym-goer and my glasses were starting to drive me crazy.
Naturally, I was full of questions and concerns ahead of the day. What are the risks involved? What is the recovery process like? Does it hurt? Can you actually smell your cornea burning while the procedure takes place?
To determine whether or not I was even a viable candidate, I had to undergo the most comprehensive eye test I’m ever likely to go through, checking for every possible issue. I was taken from room to room, sat in front of various machines that do anything from launch a puff of air into your eyes, to shine a light into them and measure various things.
From there I was taken to see the optometrist, Vimal, who essentially played the role of pessimist-in-chief. It was his job to relay the risks and complications (from the common prolonged dry-eye symptoms, to starbursts and halos) that are possible with this type of surgery. He explained the likelihood of these things (not especially likely, but not impossible) and ensured I understood.
Then I was taken to meet Dr Reinstein who talked me through some of the most common misconceptions surrounding laser eye surgery (‘it cannot correct long-sightedness,’ ‘your prescription has to be stable,’ it’s still very new so it’s worth waiting for it to develop further.’) I was sold, booking in the surgery straight away. Now all I had to do was wait.
You’re informed of several rules before you go in for laser eye surgery: eat breakfast so your blood sugar levels are stable; don’t wear perfume/aftershave and don’t wear wool because it can interfere with the laser. On arrival, you’re given a hair net and shoe covers and taken into the spa-like meditation room before going into surgery.
Fluffy shark in hand, my eyes are held open by a speculum, Clockwork Orange style, and a final few anesthetic eye drops are put in. It sounds a lot more gruesome than it actually is, and you genuinely can’t feel a thing here. In fact, I didn’t feel a thing during the entire procedure.
I was asked to keep perfectly still and focus on a green light on the machine above me. It then looked like it was getting closer and closer until it started to turn white and I felt a touch of pressure on my eye as if someone were pressing it down with the tip of their finger. That’s followed by slightly more pressure and what looks a lot like the spots that appear if you keep eyes tightly shut for too long. Then, all of a sudden it’s over and my eye is taped shut. It’s as simple as that, and on to the next eye.
It turns out that what’s happening if you’re undergoing the ReLEx SMILE procedure, like I did, is that the laser places tiny pulses on the cornea which form small bubbles that outline the exact amount of tissue that needs to be removed. This is a fraction of the width of a human hair (1/5th in fact) but reshapes the cornea enough to make a precise measured change to your vision. The surgeon then takes out the tissue through a small connecting tunnel. The advantage of this type of surgery compared with other forms of laser eye surgery is that it removes the need to create a “flap”, and can reduce the dry eye symptoms commonly experienced.
After both eyes have been treated I’m guided upright and told that when I open my eyes it will look like I’m in a steam room. For me, it actually looked like how most things did without my glasses, so I was disappointed not to have that “wow” moment straight away – but those with a higher prescription can experience this.
I was then chaperoned home from Harley Street in a taxi and asked to avoid using public transport until my check up with your surgeon the next day. I was also told to wear sunglasses when I left, as my eyes would be extra sensitive to light. Once I was home it was time to put on a podcast, set the timer for every 15 minutes so I could administer various eye drops and try to chill out. There was a lot of recovering for my eyes to do before I went to bed that night.
The first few days after you have laser eye surgery are the hardest, both from a recovery point of view and the sheer inconvenience of having to constantly administer eye drops. The recovery from this procedure varies from person to person – and I had better days than others. That’s the personal mantra I had to keep reminding myself on the trickier days. There were times when my vision was slightly blurry in one eye and other times when it wasn’t quite as clear as I had hoped, and I often became anxious as to where things would end up.
The other major inconvenience is the fact you have to wear goggles while you sleep so you don’t touch your eyes accidentally, which leave you looking peculiar and make sleeping on your side or front quite difficult. You also have to go a few days where you can’t get water into your eyes, so I ended up wearing goggles in the shower too. Ultimately, it was just a little bit of inconvenience for a lifetime of corrected vision, which seemed like a fair trade.
After your one day post-operative visit the surgeon will usually sign you off to start using the Tube again, as well as doing things like going to the gym and getting hit in the face without worries.
I didn’t experience any real discomfort but there can be pain in the first few days after the procedure. Everyone’s experience is different but the one thing that seems to be universally true is that it all gets better with time.
I’m now over three months since having laser eye surgery and I can confidently say that laser eye surgery wasn’t as scary or as painful as I imagined. My vision is now better than 20/20, which means that the surgery has corrected it to be better than when I used to wear glasses and I genuinely struggle to remember what life was like with spectacles. I sometimes even want to tell people wearing glasses in the street that they should get it done and not waste any more days opening the dishwasher only to steam up, or having to constantly clean off grubby finger prints from their lenses.
Oddly, I still notice myself touching the bridge of my nose as if to push up a pair of phantom spectacles, and I wonder if I should get clear lenses in my old frames. They were such a huge part of my face. But now, one of my favourite things to do is to just sit on a bus watch the world go by through my brand new eyes. It feels like a superpower, in a strange way, and I can’t see that feeling going away any time soon.
Find out more by visiting the London Vision Clinic website
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