Laser Eye Surgery

The bitter smell of burning eye

February 2006

I always thought, well, they can't actually fix your eyesight with lasers, right? It sounds too futuristic, like scenes from science fiction where a wounded space soldier is put back together after an encounter with a slimy/hairy/invisible foe, be it a monster/huge spider/essence of light. It just sounds too weird.

Yet there I was, one year ago this week, ushered into a bright, shiny room after being told to put protective coverings over my shoes. Looking back, the experience is etched on my memory as something violent, like I was attacked by a gaggle of nurses who forced me onto the table. I think it's just the idea that implies brutality, however, because I also remember being quite complicit with the procedure.

I had been nervous. Before anything happens, you have to sign off on a long list of possible complications. Total blindness is the kicker, but there are six dozen stops down that path. A dislodged iris, bleeding from the tear ducts, searing pain for the rest of your life. Then there are more mundane but equally frightening possibilities, like going cross-eyed, ‘ghost shadows,’ or the inability to focus on something for more than 20 seconds.

Finding the best remedy for such talk was a ‘buy the ticket, take the ride’ mentality, I guessed, who knows? There’s the possibility that everything might go perfectly. I lie down, cold drops are administered to numb and my left eyeball is clamped and pulled upward a few inches. I'm sure it was mere millimetres, but they felt to have been yanked out of their usual orbit. I expected a snapping sound.

On top is a machine that projects a bizarre, stringy red 3D image, rotating around and around, in and onto itself, like a Windows screensaver. I’m quite sure this has no practical benefit other than to freak the patient long enough to make them forget why they ever let someone with a laser machine so close to their face.

The surgeon slices off the top of the eye. Very smooth, very controlled. “Oop, here's the laser...” he says. Flashes of white, and a rapid-fire tick ticking sound. And then there's the bitter smell of burning eye. I'm told it's the cornea fizzling away, as the eyesight is balanced out, reversing 23 years of faulty perception. The aroma of dead wood and burning, salty toast. They reapply the sliced top and then it's onto eye number two.

The whole process takes less than twenty minutes. You sit up at the end and it's a bit cloudy, but, incredibly, you look to the other side of the room and you can read the writing on wall. In small print. From the other side of the room.

Days afterwards everything was perfect. Over the year it’s got better. I’m told I have 21/21 vision, but I’m not sure if the nurse was joking. All I know is that colours are pungent, and I focus like a lynx. Whoever invented lasers is my hero.

© Alex Ogle 2006