Friday, March 22, 2013

Eye Surgery and All About Life With and Without Glasses

     It has been almost four weeks since I had surgery on my eyes. My vision isn't what it was with glasses, but now it has to be either close to or at 20/20. I am happy, but my eyes are still sensitive. I have red lines running out from the edges. I am not used to this. I think they showed up when I caught the cold and I imagine they will go away once I get better. My recovery from here on out should be slow. I still am not allowed to itch my eyes. I have another appointment in a couple weeks to check up on my progress. I cannot drink until then. I don't want to chance an infection, or worse.

     I also have to wear sunglasses for another two or three months. The sunglasses are not a bother, really. In fact, I was excited to wear them. For years sunglasses have been barred from my face with the exception of transition lenses and those weird clip on ones. For the first time in years, I can wear real sunglasses, the type people wear simply to look cool or because it is sunny out.

     I bought aviators. I wear them at all times in natural light, even at dusk. People must think I look pretentious but I guess I don't care really. I have a reason to wear them and even if I didn't I still want to make up for a lot of lost time.

     I have had glasses since I was in first grade. Mrs. Kelly, my computer teacher, noticed me squinting at the white board in the back row. Back then, this was the only white board in the entire school. She told me I needed glasses and moved me to the front of the room until I got them. I was surprised at the time. To me, I suppose the change was so slow that I did not notice the difference. When I did get glasses, the change was so dramatic I am struggling to come up with a way to describe it that isn't cliché. It was like night and day. It really was like seeing the world again for the first time. (See, please tell if you can think of a better description.)

     There are a lot of things I liked about glasses. For one, my brothers all had glasses for a time (only one has them now). I could be just like them. Glasses identified me as a nerd, which I always liked because it was true. People look smarter in glasses and I liked looking smart and I liked looking geeky. I liked my eye doctor. He was fun to talk to and glasses meant seeing him a bit more often. I liked that my eyes were always protected against those just-in-case moments when you don't think to have safety goggles but end up needing them. I liked how my transition lenses changed in the sunlight. I liked how I looked with glasses because I felt that I looked older without them, that I had bags under my eyes that were semi-concealed by my frames.

     I didn't like how glasses felt on my nose. They always left those little red marks. I didn't like that I had to put them on every morning, clean them, and take them off every night. I hated when I would sleep in them and lose them in the morning. If they were knocked off I would have to reshape them so they were not crooked. Glasses almost ruin Halloween. Not only do they cut down on the number of characters you can realistically be, but almost no one looks scary or heroic in glasses. I guess I could be Egon from Ghostbusters or Waldo. Last Halloween, I had considered going as Weird Al but Korea got in the way.

     One of my brothers got eye surgery and he loves it. One of my first concerns was a sort of identity crisis. I had worn glasses so long that they were a part of my identity. People back home and even in Korea had called me Professor. Call me egotistical, but I kind of liked the image. I liked being a nerd and I liked advertising that too. Without glasses, people might have to talk to me to decide who I am. It made me a little uneasy. My brother told me to hell with that, that glasses aren't you. I took his word for it and plunged in.

     I originally planned to do LASIK just like he did because of the quick recovery time and the more advanced procedure. My teacher friend Helen told me to go to Hangil Hospital. They are the top eye hospital in the country. I took her word for it too. LASIK would cost 1.9 million won, or about $1,750.

     Helen was a wonderful help. She brought me in for my initial screening as well as for my surgery. She helped translate for the hospital too. I was incredibly nervous, especially after watching one of the operations on the TV screen. However, after watching a few more I did not worry.

My last photo wearing glasses.

     After a couple rounds of eye drops I pulled over a hospital gown and was ushered into the surgery room. The doctor had me lay down on the LASIK machine. Some hooks were put into my eyelids to hold my eyes open (I still flinch writing this part). A conical suction device was slowly lowered onto my right eye. As it lowered, the machine said “Down” in English. This was confusing because I wasn't sure if it was instructing me or just describing its own motion. After moving the device around my eye for several minutes they turned on the suction and my eye was sucked into position, and with a wince of pain shortly released. They tried again. I heard murmuring in Korean. Then I heard Helen speak. Soon the doctor was pressing his finger to my nose. My nose! My nose was hitting the wide base of the cone-shaped suction machine! The doctor held my nose hard to the left while the machine came down on my right eye. It was no use. The machine said “Up.” There was some more talking. Then I was asked to get up. I already knew what they were going to tell me: I would be the first person in history to be denied eye surgery because my nose was too big. Their version was less blunt and perhaps a bit defensive: my nose was too high on my face, which is strange because it is a German machine, but it might have such a wide base because the technology is state-of-the-art and not yet miniaturized. So state-of-the-art, they said, that this is the only one in Korea and America only has two. Still, the awesomeness of their machine didn't matter if I couldn't use it.

     Instead they had me lay down on the LASEK machine. It fit me fine so I was led back out into the lobby and given another packet of information to read and sign. I was told I could get LASEK today instead. Having already done the research, I agreed. LASEK was supposed to mean more pain and irritation, but in the long run most likely more resilient eyes. It was also 600,000 won cheaper, so in the end the entire procedure only cost 1.3 million won or about $1,200.

     After signing the papers I was given another dose of eye drops and sent back in. Fortunately, this machine didn't require little metal hooks on my eye lids or a suction cup. I'm not sure what it required but it didn't seem as bad. Looking back, I still hated the operation, but at the time I kept telling myself I just extremely disliked it. Fingers and pointed sticks and needly things kept flashing in front of my eyes while they were doused with various fluids. A dish of cold alcohol was used to dissolve the outer layer of cornea. The whole thing made me nervous. I tried to focus on not twitching my toes, breathing regularly, and always staring at the green light as the doctor said. This was especially important when the laser came on. Actually, the laser was the most pleasant part of the experience. When the laser was on, nobody was poking around. It was just a bright, warm light for a second or two. In my first eye I did smell a slight singe, but the brochure says the laser doesn't burn so something doesn't add up.

     The whole operation took under fifteen minutes I would imagine. Sure, I extremely disliked it, but it was not unbearable and keep in mind I am a wimp when it comes to the thought of anything being done to my eyes. I got up and immediately I could see an improvement. My vision wasn't great, but it was improved. The doctor did a quick check and said I would be just fine. As I started to put on my shoes he commented on my Obama socks. Maybe I wore them because I needed to do laundry or maybe I thought wearing strange socks would bring me good luck, but he told me that in Korean culture wearing a man's face on your socks is disrespectful to the man.

     I ended up getting the subway back and hanging out with a coworker while he arranged his new apartment. It helped me keep my mind off my eyes. They weren't in serious pain, just slightly irritated. More than anything I was on edge from the surgery. It took me a long time to unwind and relax.

     That night and for the next week I had to wear protective covers over my eyes. The next morning I was told it was very important to open my eyes slowly so that I wouldn't damage them. I still have no idea how to arrange it in my head so that I remember to do that upon waking up. Do I fall asleep imagining myself opening my eyes slowly?

     The second day wasn't bad, only minor irritation, but the third day was, and I think it was all because I opened them quickly. They were red, they stung, and my vision would double then get blurry and, especially at night, starry. Fortunately it was mostly uphill from there. Some days were better than others, but the doctor told me healing would be gradual and uneven. After maybe a week and a half I finally felt satisfied with where my eyes were.

     It has been a little surreal without glasses. Since the new school year was beginning the following week, I decided for maximum effect I should shave my beard as well. The reactions from students were incredible. I think every day for the first week I would walk into the lunch room and a new group of girls would scream in surprise. I have never garnered that kind of reaction from anybody before. For at least ten seconds a day I felt a little bit like Paul McCartney. One student told a teacher that she could hardly bear to look at me because I had become so handsome. This kind of freaked me out, but then I remembered how fond Koreans are of superlatives and exaggerated reactions. When I first came to the school almost everything I said garnered a gasp of awe. Not so much anymore. This too shall pass.
With a little help, it shall pass sooner rather than later.
     I am still not entirely used to life without glasses. Often before going to bed I still wonder where my glasses are so that I can put them on to take them off before going to bed. I still wear sunglasses at all times in daylight so when I leave the house at night I feel especially naked without glasses of any kind. I subconsciously want to grab for my glasses at times when my vision isn't so great. For a while I was even wearing some lens-less toy glasses to trick my mind into focusing at work. But, most times, I am able to forget I ever had them. I can try to live life normally, but in a new way. If I need glasses again someday, so be it, but for right now I want to experience the kind of vision many take for granted.