The eyes have it: Surgery aids Airmen's sight



by Kelly Deichert
Air University Public Affairs


4/22/2011 - MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- Refractive surgery is improving the sight of Airmen one laser at a time.

"Patients will start noticing 20-20 vision within one to two months," Staff Sgt. Andrew Rodriguez told Airmen during the refractive surgery briefing Monday. Briefings are available at 3:15 p.m. the first and third Monday of the month at the Maxwell clinic.

Though the surgery is elective and is not a Tricare benefit, the Air Force has an investment in its Airmen and wants to ensure they are properly cared for. The qualifications and exams may vary from what patients see off base, but are essential to ensuring proper medical care.

"There are a lot of laser cowboys (off base) who want your money," Staff Sgt. Rodriguez said. "The Air Force will take good care of you."

The surgeries lessen the patient's dependence on glasses and contacts, but doctors cannot guarantee their patients will not need reading glasses in the future. As people get older, especially after age 40, they may develop presbyopia and lose their ability to focus on nearby objects.

The initial process requires Airmen to go to the Monday briefing, receive command authorization and undergo an initial exam. The optometry staff will determine if the patient is eligible for phototherapeutic keratectomy (PRK) or Lasik.

If Airmen are authorized, the application is forwarded to a surgery center, usually at Keesler Air Force Base, Miss. The Keesler Warfighter Refractive Surgery Center is ideal for Maxwell-Gunter Airmen because of its proximity and ready availability of appointments.

"It's nice, but weird, to be able to roll out of bed in the morning and just go," said Maj. Bradley Morris, senior defense counsel instructor/litigator at the Air Force Judge Advocate General's School, who had been wearing glasses or contacts since the eighth grade. He started the process in October and had PRK surgery in March.

On Sunday, he and his wife, Amanda, drove to Keesler, where he underwent exams on Monday and a briefing on Tuesday. On Wednesday, he had the surgery and slept the rest of the day.

The staff told him to buy two bags of frozen peas to use as ice packs, and they really came in handy.

Major Morris had a post-operation check up Thursday, and by Friday he was able to go out and about. After a final check the following Monday, he went home.

He said the worst day was Saturday. He was warned before the surgery that "one of the days your eyes will cloud over," he said. "I could see, but couldn't read anything."

The procedure is painless, but recovery can be uncomfortable. "The first week was not fun," Maj. Morris said. Doctors will prescribe medication to manage the pain.

By Sunday, he knew the surgery was worth it: "I remember rolling over in bed that morning, and I could read the microwave clock across the room."

He was thankful his wife was there to care for him and drive him to his appointments. Night vision may be affected, impacting the patient's ability to drive. "You may see glare and halos at night, but that all clears up if you take the medications like you're supposed to," Staff Sgt. Rodriguez said.

After the surgery, patients are on a regimen of eye drops and steroids to prevent infection and keep eyes hydrated. Staff Sgt. Rodriguez said that the drops are essential to the healing process, and Airmen may have unsatisfactory results if the regimen is not followed precisely.

Patients also are told to avoid cigarette smoke and sand, and must wear sunglasses outside.

Major Morris had light sensitivity for the first two weeks and even wore sunglasses inside, as needed.

"Lights are definitely a little brighter than they had been, but each week my eyes are getting better and better," he said.

Since Maj. Morris wore contacts for years, he was comfortable with the post-op eye drops. He said that those who feel uncomfortable touching their eyes or getting drops may want to reconsider surgery.

The surgery is quick and painless, since the eye is numb. "I didn't feel anything, but it's weird," Maj. Morris said. "I had to stare at a bright light while the lasers do their thing."

Major Morris is very happy with the results and said he wishes he had the surgery 10 years ago. "I was too scared for years, but the technology has come a long way," he said.

Are you eligible?

Initial appointments with Maxwell-Gunter optometry staff will determine if you are an ideal patient for refractive surgery.

Patients cannot wear soft contact lenses for 30 days, hard lenses for 90 days, before their initial appointment.

Airmen cannot deploy for six months after surgery.

Patients must bring a prescription that is at least a year old to prove stability.

Patients with auto-immune diseases, diabetes and glaucoma are ineligible.

Pregnant women are ineligible as well, since their eyesight may change due to hormonal fluxes.

Airmen must receive command authorization before their initial appointment.

Patients must be at least 21 years old.

Active-duty Airmen must have at least six months of retainability following the procedure.

For more information and a full list of eligibility requirements, visit http://www.sg.af.mil/ and click on "AF refractive surgery" on the right.