Getting Laser Eye Surgery in Korea

Written by on May 31, 2013 in Lifestyle

I got my first pair of glasses when I was eight years old. I remember putting on my new glasses, and feeling amazed. I couldn’t believe how beautiful everything was – the leaves, the flowers, the classroom! I loved my glasses until I realized that they weren’t “cool” (it was the third grade, after all) and from then on, I despised wearing them even though I knew what wonders awaited me from behind those clear lenses. My love-hate relationship has continued with my glasses ever since.

How I felt after first getting my new glasses… before I began to hate them, that is

I wore contact lenses full-time from age thirteen, but finally had to stop after fifteen years of use had caused severe eye fatigue. I had to go back to wearing glasses and I wasn’t happy about it. I hated it when the lenses smudged, or fogged up, or got a scratch. I hated how I could always see the frames, how they were no good for sports, and that when I went swimming it wasn’t fun because I couldn’t see. I was sick of glasses and contacts. I began to reconsider laser eye surgery for vision correction, which I first heard about when I was sixteen. Back then, the procedure was phenomenally expensive and still in its development stage, so I couldn’t imagine I’d ever be able to have it done.

Getting Laser Surgery… In Korea
Luckily for me, a decade and a half later, I live in South Korea, where that same laser eye surgery has moved out of the ‘development’ stage and become a common procedure. People have elective eye surgery every day in this country, so the doctors are well-practiced and the cost is lower than in most western countries.

Finding a Surgeon
If you want to find a doctor, look in local web forums or ask around to see who has been recommended. Doctors know that many patients come to them by word of mouth and often offer discounts if you have a referral. Of the three doctors I was considering, I ended up choosing the most expensive doctor because he is well-reputed. I figured paying a little more was worth it to have the best treatment available. We’re talking about my eyes, after all! If you can afford the best, pay for it. You won’t regret it, and in Korea, the best is definitely within your budget, so go for it!

You can find qualified doctors quickly and easily in many cities. I live in Busan so I had a great selection to choose from. Of the three clinics I considered, all spoke English and my clinic also had translated medical literature available for me. When I first considered having this surgery done, I worried about the language barrier, but as with many medical procedures here, I needn’t have worried. It was as effortless as having a procedure done in Canada, perhaps more so, since the doctor only used lay terms that were easy for me to understand.

This will be the hardest part of your day. Don’t fret.
(Image Credit)

Choosing the Correct Type of Surgery: LASIK or LASEK?
There are two different kinds of laser eye surgery: LASIK and LASEK. The doctor will determine which surgery is best for you after a series of tests. I was lucky enough to qualify for LASIK, which is less expensive and involves less healing time.

For LASIK surgery, the doctor cuts a flap on the cornea, and then uses the laser to correct the eye before the flap is closed. Recovery time is about a day, though your eyes may be irritated for a few days. You can return to your daily activities the day after surgery, and it takes two weeks to return to most normal activity. Costs start at 900,000 won and run to about 1.5 million ($900 to $1,500 CAD).

For LASEK surgery, the doctor removes a flap from the cornea and uses the laser to correct the eye. Then a temporary corrective lens is put in to protect the eye. Healing time takes 3 full days, plus about one week of extra rest. It can take one month or more to return to all full activities. Friends who have had this surgery told me that the first week was quite painful, the second mildly irritating and that yes, it does take a month or more to heal, but all of them said the trouble was worth it. Costs start at 1.3 million won and run to about 1.7 million ($1,300 to $1,700 CAD).

Korea’s laser eye surgery is not that advanced – yet.
(Image Credit)

Who is Eligible for Laser Eye Surgery?
People who are near-sighted (myopic), far-sighted (hyperopic), or who have astigmatism may be eligible for laser eye surgery. You should be over 18 years old, and your prescription should not have changed in the last 6 months. If you have side effects from long-term contact wear like I did, you can still qualify. It’s advised to stop wearing your lenses for a minimum of one week prior to check-up and surgery, but the success rate is higher the longer you stop wearing lenses. I’ve read that a month is a good length of time since it allows your cornea to thicken, which makes for a more successful surgery.

The Procedure: Check-ups
With my decision made to have the surgery, the rest of the process passed by quite quickly! Many clinics accept walk-in patients and if I had wanted to, I could have done it all in just one day! That was a little too fast for me, so I opted to have my initial assessment and check-up on one day, and the surgery on the next. For my check-up I filled out a simple medical form concerning prescriptions, allergies, and health complications then I went through a regular eye exam. The whole event was quick, easy, and unobtrusive. I then waited while the eye doctor assessed the results and within a half hour or so it was confirmed that I could have LASIK surgery the next day since I had stopped wearing my contacts six weeks prior.

The Surgery
I felt excited, nervous, calm, and a little scared on the day of my surgery. There is no need to worry though, since the procedure is very straightforward. I was in and out of the office in less than 90 minutes. First, the nurses re-did all the eye tests from the day before and the results were compared and confirmed. Then I was dressed for surgery in a gown, cap, and slippers. I was seated in a private waiting area and told to relax while the operating room was prepped.

Then I was led into the bright, white, operating room and was instructed to lie on the operating table. My surgeon then explained the procedure. The surgeon would numb my eyes, cut open a flap on the cornea, and perform the laser surgery before closing the corneal flap, cleaning it and repeating the steps on my next eye. The whole procedure would take between 10 to 20 minutes.

The doctor put anesthetic numbing drops in my right eye and propped it open. Next the doctor cut the corneal flap. This was not painful, but it was a little frightening and my least favourite part of the procedure. During this time, I could not see, which the surgeon had warned me about. Then I was directed to stare a red dot, the laser. The laser operated on my right eye for 9 seconds. Then the surgeon simply closed the corneal flap again and cleaned my eye with drops. He put in a temporary protective lens and allowed my eye to close. When I opened my eye again, it was incredible and very strange since my sight had already improved! I was pleased at how painless the surgery was, which made the surgery on left eye much easier since I was no longer afraid. My weaker left eye was treated for 13 seconds under the laser. Operating on both eyes took under 10 minutes and the results were immediate. When I opened my eyes, I could see clearer than before my surgery, even though the image was very fuzzy, as if I were starring in a romantic movie, or in a film dream sequence.

After surgery, the nurses led me to a private room where I was instructed to close my eyes. Ten minutes later, they brought me tea and cake and I was delighted that my vision had improved again in just that short amount of time (I was also delighted about the cake, I won’t lie). I rested with my eyes closed for another half hour or so before I was led to meet the doctor who checked my eyes and administered drops. I was given two kinds of prescription eye drops, to be taken three times daily. I was to rest and to return tomorrow to have the temporary lenses removed. Saying my good-byes, I was then driven home in the clinic’s van. The driver asked, “Jal bwayo?” meaning, “Can you see well?” and I proudly told him, “YES!” causing us both to laugh.

That day I went home and although I had not been tired prior to my surgery, I felt very fatigued. I fell asleep immediately, waking up five hours later to take more eye drops, and was again delighted at how much my vision had improved. By that evening, I would say that my vision had improved by 75 percent.

Here you can check out a video by one of my coworkers about his LASIK experience:

The next day I practically bounced back into the clinic, I was so happy. The corrective lenses were removed, more tests and eye drops administered. Many people experience irritation with the temporary lenses, but that hadn’t been an issue for me. The doctor told me that I would likely have my full vision in the next two weeks, but frankly, I didn’t care! If my vision stayed in the condition it had been in immediately following surgery, it was still better than what I’d had before, and I was thrilled.

I was reminded to keep up my eye-drop regimen to prevent infection and was also given saline drops in case my eyes felt dry, to be used as needed. Common side effects post-operation include blurry vision, light glare, and dry eyes, some of which may last for several months and all of which I experienced. I was also advised not to engage in heavy-duty work or fine, detailed projects for the next two weeks, and to avoid exercise, perfume, and eye makeup. Spas, saunas, alcohol and smoking or smoky areas should be avoided for two weeks to a month. I figured that I was protecting an investment in my health, so I followed these instructions closely.

It’s been one month since my surgery. I had another check-up two weeks post-operation and was told that my vision is now 16/20, that is to say better than 20/20! Lights still have a glare at night, like streetlights and car headlights, but it’s nothing that I can’t live with and it will probably continue to improve. My eyes haven’t felt dry, although in the first few weeks, I did get a headache if the room was too bright and often needed to take a rest. I still need to take small breaks from the computer, but otherwise I have been so thrilled with my results. I have been doing all of the things that I felt I couldn’t do before with glasses. I can’t wait to go swimming next month!

I went from -4.75 vision to better than 20/20!
This image represents my vision before and after surgery.

My Advice: What to Do on Operating Day

–       Arrive early. The doctor may need to double-check with tests, questions, or measurements

–       Wear comfortable clothes and leave the jewelry at home

–       Wear socks. I know this sounds odd, but you’ll feel very silly if you have to put your bare feet in the hospital slippers.

–       Tie long hair in a low or side ponytail since you’ll need to lie down

–       Bring a friend or arrange a drive home. The clinic can call you a taxi. I chose my clinic since they offered a drive-home service!

–       If your clinic offers the option, donate your used glasses to charity. Right now, mine are on their way to Africa to help someone else!

–       Bring sunglasses to wear after surgery and carry them everywhere! Even inside, you may find it too bright. If you have fake glasses, wear them in public to protect your eyes. I know this is a bit extreme, but it saved me once from getting jabbed in the eye by an errant elbow on the subway!

–       Plan for rest. I had my operation at 10 am on a Friday and wiped my weekend calendar free of commitments. I was able to go out, but I wanted lots of rest time.

That was my experience with getting laser eye surgery in Korea. It was the best money I’ve ever spent. If you are considering this procedure, be sure to talk to friends and acquaintances or check online forums for more information. Everyone’s experience will vary slightly, but among my friends who’ve had it done, we’ve all been pleased with our investment. Good luck!

About the Author

Jessica Steele

Jessica Steele is a Canadian expat teaching, writing, and adventuring in Busan, South Korea. She has lived in Korea for nearly four years, but her travels aren’t finished yet. Her favourite things in Korea are the festivals, neon lights, and of course, kimchi.