Sharp eyes: Laser surgery's all the rage

There's something we can all agree on: Few prospects are less appealing than having your eyeball sliced open. However, one of those prospects must be wearing glasses– at least if you judge by the number of locals choosing to undergo Lasik surgery, in which a specially trained doctor uses a laser to cut a flap in the cornea to restore perfect vision.

Dr. Mark Whitten may be the best known doctor to perform the surgery in Charlottesville, thanks to near-constant radio advertising, but in the nine years since the procedure gained FDA approval, several other local doctors have decided to offer the procedure. The newest in town is Shaw Laser Eye, opened this past September by Lynchburg-based Dr. William Shaw, who has two other clinics in the state.

What attracts all these Lasik docs to the Charlottesville market?

Shaw did not return The Hook's repeated calls.

But Richard Habib, spokesperson for the Whitten-Perrault Laser Eye practice, which has nine offices in Virginia and Maryland, says there's plenty of business in Charlottesville. In fact, though Whitten and Perrault come to Charlottesville only a few times per month, they keep a full-time office open for pre- and post-operative care.

And the enthusiasm expressed by locals who have gone under the knife– er, laser– provides a clue about why other doctors might want to move in: There's wild demand for perfect vision.

When Sheila Weschler took the plunge last year, she had Dr. Edward Perrault, of Whitten-Perrault Laser Eye, do the procedure.

Weschler says she was anxious about the surgery, and though she first looked into it two years ago, it took a year for her to accept the idea of a laser in her eye. In the end, she says, she felt fully informed of the risks despite asking the doctors to skip the "nitty gritty details."

Those details can indeed be intimidating.

Countless websites detail Lasik gone wrong. Judging by the devastation described on these sites, it's easy to be persuaded that ruined vision and deformed eyeballs are the likely outcome, even in the best of circumstances.

But Dr. Garth Stevens, who has been performing the Lasik surgery since 1996 at the Richmond-based Lasik Center of Virginia, says those sites exaggerate the likelihood of serious problems. He places the risk of complications that "make vision worse than with glasses" at less than one half of one percent.

Minor problems, he says, such as dry eyes and halos around lights, typically last for one week. And with the newly approved "wave front" Lasik surgery, Stevens says, patients actually report less glare than before the surgery.

Kelly Moore, a mother of two children ages seven and eight, decided to have the Lasik surgery done two years ago.

Keeping up with contacts she'd worn since age 13 was becoming burdensome, she says, especially during the family's frequent overseas travel.

"My eyes would really dry out on the plane," she says.

But deciding to have the nearly $5,000 Lasik was a hard call.

"I was terrified," she admits.

The actual procedure, however, was "much easier than I though it was going to be," says Moore, a self-described "wimp."

The procedure on each eye took less than 10 seconds, she says, much faster than she'd imagined. And thanks to the anesthesia, there was no physical discomfort during the surgery.

But for Moore, the first time was not the charm.

Because her vision was severely impaired– 20/800– Dr. Perrault, who performed the procedure, corrected it only to 20/50 the first time around.

Moore says she was told that if they over-corrected, the mistake would be nearly impossible to fix.

Several months later, with her vision still fuzzy, she went in for a second round and emerged with 20/20 sight.

Moore says she's thrilled with the results, despite the setback. "It's so easy now," she says.

Stevens cautions it's not always so simple: Not everyone is a candidate for Lasik.

Among disqualifying traits are oversized pupils, thin corneas, extremely strong prescriptions or previous ocular surgeries or damage. Anyone under the age of 18 and pregnant women are not eligible.

And choosing the right surgeon is also key. Stevens says patients should look for a doctor's experience– particularly the number of Lasik procedures performed.

Top in that area is Dr. Whitten, who has done 40,000 Lasik surgeries in the past nine years, including procedures on Tiger Woods and other prominent athletes. His partner, Perrault, has 10,000 under his belt.

Both Weschler and Moore say they'd recommend Lasik to anyone who qualifies.

"I wish I had done it years earlier," says Weschler. "Why did I wait?"

Dr. Shaw eyed the local market and saw a need.