Dr. Neil Martin featured in Point of View

By Liesa Goins in 2013

A: You’ve probably heard about this too-good-to-be-true eye surgery that’s supposed to leave you with vision that would make an eagle jealous. Indeed, if you’re one of the 150 million Americans whose day begins fumbling for your glasses on the bedside table, it’s time to take a good hard look at LASIK (that’s laser in-situ keratomileusis to you, bub). Europeans have been getting their eyes zapped for nearly a decade, and while the FDA still hasn’t signed off on the process (next year, LASIK advocates predict), nearly a million adventurous four-eyed souls — yours truly included — have gone under the laser. Here’s a clearer vision of what’s going on.

Do I need to be nearly blind to consider LASIK?

“Virtually anyone who needs glasses or contact lenses to see is a candidate,” says Neil F. Martin, an ophthalmologist in Chevy Chase, Maryland. If you’re over eighteen, have vision that’s not constantly changing and possess healthy corneas, you’re looking good. Besides having bad vision, having a healthy bank account also helps: LASIK runs $1,500 to $3,000 per eye and generally isn’t covered by insurance.

So what happens?

Drops numb your eye and clamps on your lid keep it open. (Violent movies are optional; consult your physician.) Next, a cutting tool slices a thin, C-shaped flap on the eye’s surface. You won’t feel anything but slight pressure. The flap is lifted, and a UV laser reshapes the cornea to correct your vision. (The laser is precise enough to etch the Gettysburg Address into a human hair.) Because the eye’s interior creates its own natural vacuum, no sutures are necessary. Otherwise, this twenty-minute-per-eye procedure is painless.

But might I end up like Mr. Magoo?

The LASIK lobby proclaims a 98.8 percent success rate (resulting in vision corrected to 20/40 or better). What happens to the other 1.2 percent? The vision remains sub-par (or on very rare occasions, it gets worse), requiring either a second attempt or, alas, a continued life with glasses. While the American Academy of Ophthalmology reports that mild complications occur in about 5 percent of the procedures, P.O.V. could find no cases of anyone going blind. Plus, mostly to allay your fears, your doctor can laser each eye on a separate visit.

Any long-term side effects?

You may have hazy night vision until the eye completely heals — up to several months. But there’s no visible scar tissue and your cornea is as strong as ever. Remember that this procedure has been commonplace in Europe since 1991, and last we checked, Belgium was still full of the sighted. One rub: LASIK does not eliminate the prospect of needing reading glasses as you get older. So you still could end up with more in common with Homer Simpson than you’d like.

How can I avoid the LASIK equivalent of Dr. Kevorkian?

There’s no substitute for experience: make sure he’s performed this procedure on at least 100 other pioneers. Talk to former patients. It’s also a good idea to run his name by another doctor you trust. Finally, while the FDA hasn’t approved the procedure itself, it has approved two lasers, as well as one cutting device, the almighty microkeratome. Make sure your doctor uses these. If he does, twenty minutes and $2,000 per eye could be the equation that allows you to ditch your saline and horn-rims forever.