That Time I Got My Eyeballs Lasered in South Korea

On the joy and terror of LASIK surgery in Seoul

AA typhoon tore through the city that weekend. In Seoul, South Korea, that means dark clouds, 30-plus mph winds, sideways rain, and falling skies. Survival involves dodging branches, skirting garbage, bracing for hail, and a whole lot of running. A typhoon is like pulling a fire-alarm in the great outdoors. Think: friendly fire from God, a biochemical attack, and a weapon that targets a population’s umbrella supply.

You can imagine the locals’ surprise at seeing me strolling through this mess in drenched clothes and sunglasses with a world-class, dumb-fuck smile tucked under my nose. Why? Simple: A handful of Korean doctors had just shot laser beams into my eyes.

My watch alarm buzzed. I dodged a falling branch, skirted a flurry of garbage, braced myself against the hail, and ran into a semi-covered alley between two buildings. I lifted my sunglasses and squirted a generous stream of fake tears into my still-healing eyes. I blinked, looked ahead, and saw an old lady, stopped dead, staring at me. As my brand-spanking-new perfect vision cleared, I smiled. For the first time in my life, without contact lenses, without glasses, without squinting, I could clearly see the look on her face.

It said: “You are a fucking idiot.”

Five hours earlier, an Australian liaison had greeted me at the front desk of Seoul’s premiere LASIK clinic. He was suited-up and bouncy. He bounced on his feet, sending waves reverberating around his body. His hands bounced, his shoulders bounced, even his smile bounced. It was like every part of him had to pee.

It was an eyeball assembly line.

“Nice-to-meet-you-my-name-is-Jonathan-wait-here,” he said, and dashed off.

I sat, waited, and thought about the last time I did cocaine — New York City, five years earlier, sitting on the floor of a dirty kitchen. I was talking to a girl I could only see with one eye since my contact lens had been knocked out at a cabaret show earlier that night.

Jonathan returned. “Come!” he instructed.

He led me into a dimly lit hall filled with eye-checking machines, white-clothed nurses, and patients being led from one machine to another: glasses on, glasses off, eyes closed, look here, wait here, on and on. It was an eyeball assembly line.

“Do you speak Korean?” Jonathan asked me, a little less bouncy this time. He must have peed.

“Nope.”

He paused and then smiled, “Oh. Okay, it’s okay.” He led me over to the first machine in the line. I could see that the room curved around with more and more machines lined up, on tables, against walls, on tables against walls.

“Woah,” I said.

Jonathan smiled, “Yes. Many tests.”

“Trying to see if my eyes are divergent?”

He frowned. “What?”

“Never mind.”

A nurse joined us. Jonathan spoke to her in Korean. She nodded and pointed to the stool in front of her machine. I sat.

“You’ll be okay,” Jonathan said. “I will be back.”

Off he went. The nurse smiled at me. She pointed to the face-holder in front of the machine. “Look,” she said. I studied the two dark holes, took a breath, and pressed my face into the forehead strap. My heart was pounding.

As a kid, my mother censored a lot of what I watched: no cursing, no violence, no horror, etc. I conveniently forgot to mention this to my friends’ parents. So, when I was eight, just a couple years into my first pair of glasses, my friend’s mother set us up with an old hokey superhero movie, complete with a hokey bad guy with a hokey two-lensed microscope that he’d ask people to look through before pressing a button, sending two hokey little spikes into a screaming fade-to-black.

Hello, old trauma.

But six tests later, I still hadn’t been eye-spiked. My heart rate returned to normal. Things had gotten a little awkward, though. Around test three, where I’d had to focus on the green laser instead of the red, the nurse gave me a thumbs up.

“Very good!” she’d said.

She’d done the same for the past two tests. “Glasses off!” — “Look.” — “Don’t flinch!” “Good.” — thumbs up — “Very good, very good!”

Trying to break the awkwardness I’d laughed and said, “Wow, I’ve got some fuckable eyes, huh?” I got a cold frown in response. I coughed instead. Tests four, five, and six finished in silence.

She told me to wait. I sat and read my book.

Next, I was led to a giant machine covered in black rubber next to a new nurse. There was a small opening in it for me to look through. She sat me down.

Now, it’s important that you know I do not have what you’d call a small nose. Kind people would call it distinguished. In elementary school, they called me “bird-nose.” In middle school, they called me “boomerang nose.” In high school, they said, “You could suck a dick with that nose!”

“Look,” the nurse said.

I had to tilt my head to the side to get my eye close enough to the hole.

“I hold head, okay?”

“Okay.”

She pressed. Gentle, at first.

“Up!” she said. “Look up!”

I tried my best. I really did.

The nurse pressed harder into the back of my head. “Up! Up! Up!” I strained my eye as much as I could, just barely glimpsing the little red dot as she pressed even harder. The light flashed again.

Again, she sighed. Again, she pressed my face harder into the machine. I pushed back against her and pointed to the bridge of my nose.

“Big nose!” I said.

There was a pause, then more pressure, until I felt the weight of her body on the back of my head. Her elbow dug into my back.

“Up!” she cried.

Tests complete, I sat beside Jonathan, across from a doctor. “What happened to your nose?” Jonathan asked.

“Nothing new,” I told him.

He frowned, and then smiled. “Okay, well, you have perfect eyes for surgery. All of your tests were very good!” He gave me a thumbs up. I opened my mouth, thought better of it, and smiled instead. I turned to the doctor, expecting her to start explaining the process. Instead, she just smiled and nodded while Jonathan spoke.

“So, you can do LASIK, and it is a very short recovery. There will be a few hours of discomfort and you’ll have to use fake tears for a while, but by the next day, your vision will be sharp, and you can go back to work. You just have to make sure to use the fake tears every 10 to 15 minutes, especially in the first 24 hours, and you’ll be good. After that, just apply the tears whenever your eyes get dry for the first few months.”

“I thought I’d be super sensitive to light and have to be careful for a while?” I glanced at the doctor. She was still nodding and smiling. Jonathan spoke.

“Ah! No, that is LASEK, not LASIK, it is more intense. Your eyes are good for LASIK.”

“That seems unnecessarily confusing but cool,” I said, “How much?”

They pointed to the brochure. The total cost was $1,200, about half the cost of getting LASIK done on a single eye in the United States, where the usual cost can be anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000 per eye.

“No shit!” I said.

“No shit.”

The doctor smiled and nodded.

“Right, so, when should we do this thing?”

They both turned to me and smiled.

“Today?” he said.

“Cool, wait—” I pointed out of the window. A shredded umbrella flew past, screaming with the rain. “Uh, is it a problem that there is a typhoon outside right now?” I asked.

Jonathan followed my gaze. “No.”

He had an absent-minded, glazed look in his eyes.

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” he added without looking at me. I turned to the doctor. She was smiling and nodding. Another umbrella slammed into the window, startling Jonathan out of his daze.

“Shall we?” he asked.

The teddy bear was a surprise. They dressed me in a blue robe and squirted a bucket-load of anesthetic into my eyes. Two nurses led me into a dark room where three giant X-ray machines waited. They laid me down under the first machine, placed a teddy bear on my chest, folded my arms around it, tucked me in with a blanket, and said, “Shhhhhhh.”

It felt like my eyeball had been sucked up into this cold dark mechanical butthole forever and was being digested.

I looked up. A black disk, two inches in diameter, looked down at me. In the middle was a small opening, like a little mechanical butthole. The nurses circled around me, out of sight. The doctor came in. A small tool was placed into my eye to hold the lid open. Someone grabbed my head from behind.

“Don’t move.”

The butthole machine descended. It was heavy and pressed hard over my left eye. Then, suddenly, I went blind. It felt like my eyeball had been sucked up into this cold dark mechanical butthole forever and was being digested. I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t that.

“I’m blind!” I cried. I felt the nurse’s hands on my arms. She pressed them into the teddy bear and said, “Shhhhhhhh.”

I opened my right eye, which was not inside the butthole, and it calmed me down. It’s okay, it’s okay, I could rock an eyepatch, I thought to myself.

A few seconds later, the machine lifted and vision came back to my left eye. I took a breath and was less startled when it came down on my right eye, rendering it blind as well. Well, this feels like something someone should have warned me about, I thought.

When it was over, the nurses helped me stand. I reached back for my teddy as they started leading me to the next machine.

“Shhhhhh,” the nurse said as the other bundled up the teddy and blanket. They laid me under the next machine and tucked me back in. I held the teddy tight, preparing for the unexpected. The eye-opening tool came back. I couldn’t feel anything, but I watched as the doctor sprayed some mystery liquid over my eyes. Two little tools appeared; they poked and sliced, and I watched through my blurry little theatre as the tools worked away on my eye. Then, the machine came down and a little red light appeared.

It stopped. The doctor talked to the nurses in Korean while I laid and waited, one eye stuck open on the paused big-screen horror movie. Someone took my teddy. I was being moved.

“Wha-what is going on?”

The nurse held my arm. “Shhhhhh.”

“Is there a problem with the machine shooting lasers into my face!?”

The nurse patted my arm.

“Shhhhhh,” she said. “Blue eyelids,” she clarified.

“WHAT!?”

“Shhhhhhh.”

She laid me down on a new machine as I thought, Well, this is it. This is what I get. I’m going to be fucking blind forever!

They hit play on my own personal horror movie. The tools came back, only for a moment. Then, the new machine descended. There was a red light that got brighter and brighter, then went angry and wild like Hal from 2001: A Space Odyssey having an orgasm. I didn’t feel a thing, but then I started smelling something burning. Oh, I realized. That’s burning flesh. No problem, it’s just my goddamn eyeball!

Ten seconds later, the laser calmed down. The machine lifted and the tools were back, little brushes this time, painting my eye back together. The tool holding my eye open was pulled away, and that was it.

As they slipped the eye-opener-tool into my left eye, I started to laugh. The nurse pressed my arm deeper into the warm flesh of the teddy bear and said, “Shhhhhh.”

Five minutes later, it was over. Door to door, the whole process took roughly four hours and was more efficient and convenient than popping into the dentist’s office for a cleaning. Then I was let loose into the raging typhoon, blind to chaos, ready to greet the world anew.

Columnist and author. My writing is like a bunch of people at a party trying to tell different jokes at the same time. benjamindavis.substack.com

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