Okay, so technically I was never “legally blind.” But from 6 years old, my eyesight went down hill. And then it hit rock bottom. Once after an eye exam, an optometrist patted me on the back and comforted me by saying, At least you’ll never go blind, we’ll always be able to fix this. My vision could only ever be corrected through contact lenses to 20/30 and once I picked up a live bee instead of a marker cap, stung myself and my sister. True story. My bad vision ranked in at a prescription of -7.25 in my left and -9.75 in my right with a -1.75 astigmatism.
When I graduated from University in 2008, I decided I had had enough of glasses and contacts, a routine I had been following for a decade. It was the first time I looked into Lasik and realized that my vision was so bad that I wasn’t even a candidate. People with severe myopia, that is anyone with diopeter over -6, shouldn’t under go Lasik or Lasek surgery because the percentage that their myopia will return is extremely high. It was also the first time I had heard of implantable contact lenses. But at $3,000 an eye I knew it was not an affordable choice for me. Downtrodden, I resolved that glasses and contacts would be my life. Fast forward six years.
I’d been living in Korea since 2011 and had always heard rumors of foreigners getting eye surgery and loving it. But I was wary. My vision was so bad… maybe Korea didn’t offer ICL surgery and if they did would it be too expensive? Finally, I noticed an advertisement posted on a foreigner discussion board about discounted eye surgery. One of the procedures mentioned was ICL and T-ICL. The prices listed were from 4,000,000 won ($3,900) to 5,500,000 won ($5,400) for both eyes. I thought, well this is cheaper, maybe I should contact the clinic.
Contacting the Clinic:
I submitted a form electronically to the Seoul Eye Group. They are located in Gangnam which can be accessed from virtually anywhere in the city within 40 minutes. A few minutes later, I received a call from the English speaking Coordinator. He arranged the initial consultation for me.
I arrived at the clinic at around 10am. Immediately I was stuck by how busy the place was. It is definitely a high traffic hospital. This can be both a good and bad thing. The good thing is the doctors are doing these surgeries everyday and have loads of practice. The bad thing is you might feel a little like cattle.
I went through a battery of initial eye tests in which they tested my sight, interocular pressure, shape of lens, density of cornea etc. It took about an hour to complete all tests. I should mention that a language barrier was not a problem. All staff at least knew how to direct me through the tests. Finally, I met with my doctor. He let me know that I would not be a candidate for Lasik and that he recommended I get ICL surgery. It was at this point he also mentioned that because of the astigmatism in my right eye, I’d have to get a Toric ICL. An astigmatic basically means the shape of my cornea is not perfectly round. This technology is so new that it was only just approved by the FDA in the U.S. in March of 2014.
I asked a few questions: How often has he performed the surgery? His response: Everyday for five years. I was feeling reassured. What will the price be? Combining the price of ICL surgery: 3.5 million won, with that of T-ICL surgery: 4.5 million won, we came to a nice round 4 million won ($3,900) agreement. We scheduled the iridotomy and ordered the lenses that would go in my eyes forever.
An iridotomy procedure is necessary for any person getting ICL or T-ICL surgery. Glaucoma patients have been getting this procedure for years to alleviate symptoms of the disease. Basically, two holes are lasered through each iris in order to allow fluid to properly circulate around the lens. The doctor warned me that of the two procedures this one would be the more painful. I had also read that there can be complications with this surgery that could result in cataracts. I was more nervous for this than the actual implantation procedure. Turns out there was really nothing to be worried about.
I arrived at my appointment and received eyedrops to super constrict the pupil. It took an hour and thirty minutes for the pupil to become small enough to begin. I was also given some numbing drops. During the waiting period I felt some mild discomfort from the constriction. It resulted in a little headache that went away after taking some Advil. My vision became quite blurred so it was nice to have a friend with me to chat.
Finally, I was taken into the procedure room. I sat on a chair that faced the laser, quite similar to the machines in the optometrists office. My head was strapped to the machine to prevent it from moving. I was told that not moving was very important to avoid complications. A large contact like lens was placed over my eye to keep it open. Head in place, we began. It took 7 shots of the laser to make one hole. In each eye, he made two. Then I was moved to a final machine that administered two final shots that were slightly more painful than the first. As for the pain, I felt it wasn’t really as bad as the doctor made it out to be. And the whole thing took less than 10 minutes.
I want to mention that I have blue eyes. Apparently, this eye color makes it easier for doctors to see the blood vessels, so it takes less shots fired. The doctor said that patients with a darker eye color might need 10-12 shots per hole.
After the procedure, I had to wait another 30 minutes to check the pressure of the eye to be sure it was normal. I was prescribed steroid drops to help with any inflammation and was sent on my way.
I felt tender right after the procedure and needed to take some pain medication for the first couple of days. I could definitely tell that my eyes were swollen. However, I was able to wear contact lenses the next day. With ICL surgery, there is no need to wear glasses before the procedure. I wore my contacts up until the day of surgery.
ICL and T-ICL Surgery:
One week after my Iridotomy, I returned to the clinic for lens implantation. I was nervous but had brought a friend with me to distract me through the prepping. After receiving eyedrops to dilate my pupil and numb the eye, I was taken to the surgery floor. I was laid down on a sort of hospital bed and covered with a blanket. Three other nurses were in the room along with my doctor. First, a bouffant cap was placed on my head. Then, they thoroughly sanitized my face using gauze and finally covered me with a mask that had two flaps opening at the eyes. I was very comfortable.
The doctor started with the right eye. A device was put on my eye to keep it open. This eye was receiving the T-ICL and also had an astigmatism. At this point, the doctor was speaking Korea to his aides and coaching me in English. He told me everything that he was going to do. At first it seemed that he put a kind of iodine in my eye. This actually hurt a bit. After this he marked the lens position by making two small openings at the bottom of my eye. The next part was a little stressful for me. The doctor inserted a gel-like substance into my eye. He mentioned that my vision might become blurry. I could see the squiggles of substance going into my eye and finally everything went dark. Not expecting to go momentarily blind, I had minor internal panic. I later learned that being unable to see was normal. We continued by making the incision that would be the entrance for my lens. Finally, he inserted the lens into my eye. At the moment the lens was in, I regained my vision and watched as he rotated it into place. Once finished, he “removed the foreign bodies” from my eye and moved to the next.
The left eye procedure was exactly the same but significantly shorter. I’m not sure if that was because the right eye had the astigmatism. Perhaps it made the lens harder to place. I definitely felt pressure and some pain during the procedure. It wasn’t unbearable but suffice to say I think it was one of the most intense things I’ve ever done.
Directly afterward, I could see. My vision was slightly blurry due to all the drops they’d put in. I was taken to a resting room where I needed to lay down with my eyes closed for two hours. When the time passed, they checked my eye pressure. This time I was given antibiotic drops and more steroids.
I came back the following morning to check the placement and pressure. They said everything looked perfect.
After this entire experience, I just can’t believe I’ve done it. Here are a list of pros and cons of the procedure:
The recovery period. Though short compared to most surgeries, it was somewhat annoying. Like all wounds, a scab formed on the incision site. At night it was much more noticeable and I felt like I had something in my eye. I kept wanting to “take out my contacts” when my eyes were feeling bad but knew that I couldn’t.
Halos. I see them and will see them at night for the rest of my life. I think this is something I’ll get used to and it could get better with time. For now I use drops to help it but I know I won’t feel comfortable driving in the dark anymore.
Not having things explained to me. I think this might be mostly because I had my procedure in Korea. I felt like the hospital did the surgery so often that it was just seen as routine. The human touch seemed to be lacking.
I saved a boat load of cash. Getting this procedure done in Korea was definitely the way to go. It was significantly cheaper than in the U.S. Not to mention that it might not even have been possible for me to get a Toric lens in my right eye at home.
The doctors were trustworthy and kind. Korea has a reputation for being one of the leading countries in eye care. So, despite not telling me everything about the procedure, I knew my doctor had done hundreds of these surgeries. His confidence and reassurance really made me feel braver.
I have amazing pilot-worthy vision. I couldn’t have asked for a better result. In the check-ups that followed, nurses told me that my vision is better than 20/20. As the healing continues, it will only get more stable. I wouldn’t change anything!