Many expats choose to have laser eye surgery while they’re in Korea, as it is much cheaper than in many of our home countries. As such, I thought I’d share my recent experiences for anyone considering the operation.
My background research mostly consisted of talking to numerous friends who have had undergone the procedure, of whom all but one had a thoroughly positive experience, and even the one bad experience ended up all right in the end. This anecdotal evidence was good enough for me, so I called a Korean friend, and went with her to the clinic she’d had her surgery in about 10 years ago. We called beforehand, but they said for the initial evaluation, no appointment was necessary, so we headed into the Shinsegae LASIK Clinic on a Tuesday morning, around 11am. The clinic is located next door to the KEB in Samsandong, across the main road from the Lotte Hotel. The LASIK center is on the 8th floor.
That day, the friendly staff led me through a series of eye tests on a variety of machines, including a test for glaucoma, to measure everything from my cornea thickness to my ability to see. Then I had a consultation with a staff member, who explained that I was a good candidate for the surgery, and outlined the risks involved. I needed my friend to interpret for me, as my Korean is not up to this level of conversation, and the 8th floor staff have limited English.
After I decided that I did want to proceed, I was taken to another floor where I met with the doctor who would perform the procedure, for both a consultation and further tests. Dr. Kim’s English was excellent, and he again explained the risks involved in the procedure thoroughly. The most common side effect is dry eyes, followed by seeing halos around lights at night. There is also an increased sensitivity to light, which can make night driving uncomfortable for some patients. Not all surgeries correct vision 100%, mistakes can happen, and ultimately, you’re having lasers burn bits of your eyeball, so you need to consider it seriously.
It turned out during the further tests that I had a small hole by my retina, which put me at risk for it (the retina) becoming detached during the surgery. I had to go in the day before (as I had to teach that afternoon, and couldn’t do the procedure then) my surgery to have a small procedure to “fix” the hole. I’ve also been warned that if I feel something floating in my eye at any point in the future, I should make haste to the eye clinic. Yikes.
That was the end of my first day. I booked my appointment for that Friday afternoon, and for the small procedure on the Thursday morning beforehand.
Thursday, I had a quick check up to measure the hole exactly, and then was strapped into a machine that pulsed a green light into my eye. It lasted only about 5 -7 minutes, but it was terribly uncomfortable. The green light hurt – almost like my eye was being squeezed – and made me tear up uncontrollably. I won’t lie – it wasn’t fun. But it was over soon, and the hole was fixed.
Friday I was pretty nervous. I kept imagining the surgery would feel like the procedure on Thursday, and freaked myself out a bit. I went to the clinic and underwent a few quick eye tests to confirm my vision strength. Then it was time to review the risks again, in detail, and sign the waiver (it basically said that this was an elective surgery, that I was making the choice, and that I understood the risks involved). As my friend had informed them I’d be coming alone, the staff had prepared a printed English version of both, which I thought was really kind of them. I’ve often had to sign Korean forms with just a vague understanding of what I’m putting my name to, which always makes me feel uncomfortable. I appreciated the extra effort they’d gone to, to make sure I knew what I was getting into. While the 8th floor staff didn’t speak much English, they were very helpful and kind, and they worked hard to make themselves understood.
After signing the consent form, I was led up to the 9th floor, and put in a little bedroom. I saw the doctor again for another examination, and he again explained the risks. Finally, it was show-time. I was given eye drops to numb them, and led into the operating theatre, which consisted of two big machines. I lay down on the first bed, where they would cut my corneas. This was the only part of the surgery which hurt, and it wasn’t the cornea cutting that was the problem. They have to clamp open your eyes, of course, which is vaguely uncomfortable, not only because it feels like that scene in A Clockwork Orange. But then they stabilize your eyeball by pressing this cup-like thing down hard on your face. It’s not so much painful as it is very uncomfortable. Thankfully, it lasts less than a minute per eye. You stare up at a circle of lights as they push this cup down, and before you know it, they’re all done.
The next part is the actual vision correction. I was led to the second machine, and again lay down, this time staring at a green blinking light. Again my eyelids were clamped apart, and then the green light went from a dot to a big, blurry blotch – the doctor had peeled back my cornea. As I stared straight up at the light, I smelled a slight burning smell, and then the doctor replaced my cornea with what seemed to be a tiny, soft brush (though I felt nothing). This was repeated for my other eye. The whole thing seemed to take about 2 minutes.
The doctor did a quick check up, and found a bit of debris in one cornea, so I lay back down on the table, and had the eye flushed with water. On the second check, it was all clear.
The nurse then took me to the little bedroom, where I lay down in a lovely warm bed, and closed my eyes for 15 minutes. When she returned, she gave me a list of dos and don’ts (she’d taken the time to translate it all for me, which again, I thought was really kind of her): don’t rub or touch your eyes, do apply drops regularly, don’t wear makeup for a week or two, don’t do exercise or running for a week, etc. I had one more checkup from the doctor, who explained the eyedrop meds I’ll be taking for the next two weeks, and told me to spend the rest of the day with my eyes closed. Apparently, too much blinking can cause a wrinkle in the cornea, which is obviously not a good thing.
The clinic gave me a pair of googles to wear that day, and at night for the next two weeks, and my prescription for antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and artificial tears. I had a follow-up appointment booked for the next morning at 9am, and was sent home. It’s really hard to sit around with your eyes closed, and not fall asleep, so I napped most of the afternoon, and then listened to a bunch of TED Talks that evening.
In the morning, I had a couple of vision tests, and then the doctor took a look at my eyes. My right eye now has perfect vision, but my left is a little bit blurry (way better than it was before, though). He felt confident that the left eye will clear up a bit more over the week, but if not, my vision now is still 1.00 (20/20), which is amazing.
I’m thrilled with my results, and I would highly recommend the process to anyone considering it. There are absolutely risks involved, and you should weigh them carefully. The clinic will review the risks with you, thoroughly. If they don’t, you may want to consider visiting a different doctor. I would be highly skeptical of anyone who guarantees your results, or promises you perfect vision. You also may want to research the LASEK process, which is slightly different, and the better option for some people.
The Shinsegae Clinic is located in Samsandong, next door to the KEB, across from the Lotte Hotel. The LASIK/LASEK clinic is on the 8th floor. They are open 9am-7pm on weekdays, 9am – 5pm on Saturdays, and 9am-12pm on Sundays and holidays. Phone: 080-274-0001 – Minimal English spoken, you may want to have a Korean friend help you.