I remember the first day I wore contact lenses. I was 24, new-ish to Toronto and just leaving the eye doctor. Despite squinting my way through university (from the front row), I had never worn any kind of vision correction before—a serious shock to the optometrist. I walked home along Bloor Street, the same route I took daily, and took it all in. The leaves on the trees looked like laser-cut latticework. I could make eye contact with passersby. Even the stone on the side of the Hudson’s Bay building looked overwhelmingly granular. I called my mom. “Are you crying or laughing?” she asked. I had no idea. I was thrilled by all the details I could suddenly see, but disappointed by my inability to notice them without these little plastic pieces on my eyeballs.
Now, after four years of dropping $400 on contacts every six months—my dry eyes demanded the priciest dailies out there—I opted for laser eye surgery. It was something I began considering pretty much since that first walk home in contacts, but the idea of having flaps cut into my eyeballs (puke) held me back. Then I learned about SMILE (“small incision lenticule extraction”), a new procedure that was recently approved by Health Canada. It’s basically like Lasik 2.0, where a new, super-precise laser can correct vision without cutting a trap door into your eye. Instead, it’s a smaller incision of only two to three millimeters, which means faster healing time (you can wear makeup, drive and return to work the next day) and, with fewer nerves affected, less risk of lingering dryness. Still a little sheepish but so over that sticky, tired-eye feeling after a day in contacts, I decided to go under the beam.
SMILE flapless vision correction, $2,700 per side at Toronto’s Herzig Eye Institute.
Before you can even consider laser eye surgery, you need your vision to be stable for at least a year. My prescription parked itself at -2.25—not the worst possible, but still, I couldn’t do anything without contacts on. I booked a consultation to confirm that I was a candidate for the surgery. After a few stare-at-the-dot, don’t-blink tests, I got the green light for SMILE. (Anyone approved for Lasik is also fit for SMILE, as well as those formerly limited to the slightly tougher PRK procedure as long as they have strong corneal structures.) I scheduled my procedure for five weeks later.
A week before the surgery, I had to give up my contacts and switch to glasses. They say this is so that your cornea returns to its natural shape beforehand, but I think it’s to replace pre-surgery dread with desperation to finally get it done so you never have to wear stupid frames again.
I was oddly chill the day of the procedure. I worked out in the morning, went to work, then biked over to Herzig at lunch time. Whether it was an anxiety-coping mechanism or I was just really busy/distracted, I kept forgetting what awaited me that afternoon. I glazed over the waiver before signing, choosing to remember Dr. Herzig’s words from my consultation instead: “I don’t do anything until I’m sure it’s safe.” I was then given a cookie and shown to the waiting area.
When my name was called, shortly after my last cookie bite, I went in and repeated the eye tests from the consultation to confirm I was good to go. I saw a sign on a nearby room that said “Warning: Laser In Use. Please Do Not Enter” and suddenly got my first jolt of nerves. Thankfully, a Valium was handed to me moments later, and a quick neck-and-shoulders massage—very clever, Herzig team.
Now, I like to think of myself as brave when it comes to trying new things. That girl was nowhere to be spotted when I was rolled under the laser machine a few minutes later. Having been so blissfully forgetful leading up to the surgery, in the 30 seconds before it was set to begin, I was hit full-on by all the nerves I should’ve been dealing with gradually in the days prior. A nurse put anesthetic drops in my eyes, and with the ensuing wetness on my face—combined with my sudden anxiety—I couldn’t tell if I was crying or not (sound familiar?) I’m going to wager that I was.
Next, Dr. Herzig put some sort of little clamp in my right eye and taped the left one closed. This sounds torturous but, at this point, my eyes were numb and my nerves were solely focused on the looming laser machine. Moments before the device lowered over me, I squeaked, “I’m just so nervous.” The nurse reached out to pat my arm, and I grabbed her hand and didn’t let go.
The machine descended to meet my face, and a suction ring activated to hold my eye in place (again, sounds gross but was barely noticeable). My job was to lie still and stare at the green light through the looking hole. Dr. Herzig told me that the light would disappear about halfway through, but just to keep looking where I had been—a simple task that I committed every fibre in my body to. Michael Jackson could’ve walked into the room and I wouldn’t have budged. It’s hard to understand that while I looked at that little green light, a laser was cutting my cornea. It didn’t hurt at all. I was starting to wonder what I had been so scared of. I was also confused about whether my eye was actually open. I had to remind myself that, hello, there’s a clamp holding it open. But when you feel nothing, have no urge to blink, and only see grey-ish black (after that green light, you can’t really see anything until the procedure is finished), it gets confusing.
After 30 seconds, the laser was finished cutting. Next, Dr. Herzig had to extract the lenticule—basically, the sliver of cornea they remove to correct vision—through the incision. (This step doesn’t happen in Lasik because they lift the flap and zap that excess tissue into what Dr. Herzig calls “molecular dust.”) The lenticule extraction was the most uncomfortable part of the procedure, but still, no pain. I felt pressure on my eye as Dr. Herzig lightly pushed and pulled, but still couldn’t really see anything. The hardest part was that I couldn’t stop my brain from visualizing what must be happening. This all took about a minute. I thought about asking to see the removed lenticule afterwards, but decided it’d be best not to vomit while my eyes were healing.
Once my right eye was finished and Dr. Herzig said it went really well, I finally relaxed. I even let go of the nurse’s hand. The left eye was a cakewalk.
I walked out of the laser room, was handed a sweet, sweet pair of sunglasses I’d previously only seen on grey-haired men, and was taught how to use my drops. One more PTSD-relieving cookie, and I was ready for my boyfriend to pick me and my bike up.
The horror stories were fiction. I had heard tales of eyes feeling like sandpaper afterwards, of the operating room smelling like burning flesh, of seeing halos around every light source. LIES. Maybe this happens with other procedures, or maybe my friends wanted to sound like heroes. When the anesthetic drops wore off, I felt a sort of tension around my brows and a far bit of light sensitivity, as though I was fighting the beam of a really bright lamp. I took one of the two Tylenol 3s given to me in my post-op kit and had a nap. When I woke up a couple hours later, I felt totally fine. I never took the second Tylenol 3. I kept wearing my wicked sunnies for the next few days, and was very diligent in using the prescribed eye drops every few hours. The best way I can describe how my eyes felt in the week post-surgery: like I was wearing contacts. I could see sharply right away (still so hard to believe), and felt only a tad dry, like my lenses used to make my eyes feel by mid-afternoon.
My nerves were the worst part. I wish I had done a better job of mentally preparing myself. I didn’t let myself acknowledge my natural concern about having a laser cut my eye in advance, so it all hit me way too hard at the last minute. I think I could have spared myself (and Herzig’s staff) the operating-room freak out if I had already worked through some of these thoughts in the days leading up to my surgery. Thank goodness for friendly (or maybe just patient?) nurses.
Seeing is believing. Cliché but hi, it’s so true. It’s been three weeks since my procedure, and I’m still amazed that, suddenly, I can see. Like, what? I gave away my contacts and my glasses—good riddance—and now, I just wake up and can discern my surroundings right away. Cue the cry/laugh frenzy.