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Lasik patients report pain, vision problems in rare cases; blame surgery for suicides

FDA says procedure is safe, industry agrees
Posted at 6:44 PM, Feb 11, 2019
and last updated 2019-02-12 00:19:27-05

DENVER – A growing number of patients across the country who underwent Lasik eye surgery say the surgery left them with halos, double vision and intense pain. In some extremely rare cases, patients or their families say it caused patients to take their own lives, an investigation by Denver7 shows.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has approved Lasik and other types of eye refractive surgery, now says it is developing guidance for LASIK surgeons to best communicate risks of LASIK eye surgery to patients.

After returning from serving in Iraq, Max Cronin got Lasik eye surgery and he struggled with complications. Nancy Burleson's son killed himself in 2016.

"The hardest part is waking up every day, knowing I still have to exist without my child," Burleson said. "He had dry eyes so bad that he was having to put eye drops in every five minutes."

Burleson says her son stopped going to his college classes and eventually lost his job. It was difficult for him to leave his apartment, she said.

"The pain was described as needles in his eyes,” she said.

Cronin died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

His suicide note read in part, "I hope someday you can understand that I couldn't go on without my eyesight. I trusted a doctor that destroyed my eyes. …Imagine not being able to see the computer screen, TV, people’s faces.”

About 700 post-surgery problems are described by patients in an FDA database reviewed by Denver7.

One report described post-surgery as "pain worse than childbirth." Another patient claimed the procedure was the "worst decision of my life."

In at least three cases, including Cronin’s, families say Lasik caused their loved ones to take their own lives.

It's cases such as those that make former FDA supervisor Morris Waxler rethink his role in approving Lasik.

He said when he helped get Lasik approved, eye surgeons told him surgery offered positive outcomes nearly across the board.

"I was lied to. I trusted people I shouldn't have trusted and I didn't know a lot of things I know now," Waxler said.

The problem is not so much with the surgery but with the recovery, he said.

Waxler said even if a surgeon does everything right, a patient could suffer problems because we all heal differently.

Eye refractive surgery involves using a blade or laser to cut a flap across the surface of the cornea. Once lifted, a laser smooths out the underlying tissue, improving vision to 20/20.

Sometimes the cuts in eyes don't heal, or the eye becomes weak after being cut, and other times, the nerves never reconnect properly, he said.

“They grow in whirly gigs and they just end on themselves and they produce uncontrivable pain,” he said.

Support group numbers increase

Online support group pages started by post-Lasik suffer Paula Cofer, of Florida, have more than 7,000 members.

"I can look up at the moon at night and see up to eight smeared overlapping moons," Cofer said.

She said the number of people following her support group pages increased after Detroit TV Meteorologist Jessica Starr killed herself last year. Starr publicly talked about problems after her eye surgery.

"If anyone understood the consequences of this surgery fully, there's no way anyone in their right mind would do this surgery,” Cofer said.

Lasik surgeon's perspective

Dr. John Vukich, with the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, said doctors are just now understanding how post-surgery pain can occur.

The ophthalmologist agrees healing isn't an exact science but stresses millions of lives have been improved.

He says 96 percent of patients who have the procedure report they are satisfied.

Over two decades, the eye refractive surgery has been performed 19 million times, he said.

A study by the FDA study shows surgery helped many patients who had been suffering halos, starbursts or double vision before Lasik. In many cases, those symptoms went away completely.

However, among patients without symptoms before surgery, many developed symptoms within six months, such as seeing starbursts (30.3 percent), halos (26.2 percent), and double images (5.2 percent).

Only a small percentage of people described symptoms as very bothersome, meaning most patients with symptoms did not find that they significantly affected their lives.

Another study, published in 2016 in Ophthalmology, said, “Compared with contact lens wear, current LASIK technology improved ease of night driving, did not significantly increase dry eye symptoms, and resulted in higher levels of satisfaction at 1, 2, and 3 years follow-up.”

Vukich says it’s important to consider the millions of people who have been helped by the procedure.

“The balance of good is so overwhelming for those individuals who have had Lasik I think we have to look at that context,” Vukich said. "You take a million patients, do the exact same thing, and you are going to have rare outlying circumstances.”

Vukich says patients with symptoms should talk to their doctor. Medication or alternative methods can improve, if not eliminate, symptoms.

This investigation was done in a partnership between Denver7 and its parent company’s national show, The NOW. Denver7 is owned by Scripps.

The Contact7 Investigates Team