'Every day he regretted it': Eye surgery warning from widow of man who died by suicide
The suicide note Tim Fentem wrote contained an apology and an explanation.
"My eyes are wrecked," the husband and father of two wrote before his death by suicide in 2016.
Tim Fentem’s wife Lori told CTV News she was devastated, but not shocked, at his death by suicide in July of 2016, after watching him, for years, suffering complications related to the eye surgery called Radial Keratotomy or RK.
Lori Fentem is now sharing her late husband’s tragic story, after hearing of other cases of suicide in the wake of refractive eye surgery.
“We knew how miserable he was and we knew that he would never leave us unless he felt that he had no other option,” she told CTV News in a phone interview from Scottsdale, Ariz., where she and her family live.
“My kids were 17 and 20 when they lost their dad because of RK. Because he didn’t want to wear glasses.”
Fentem had mild myopia, or nearsightedness. He decided to have RK in 1995, when he was 27. The procedure was very popular at the time, with millions in the U.S. and Canada undergoing the surgery which promised to end their reliance on glasses and contacts.
In the procedure, doctors use blades to make fine cuts in the cornea, flattening it so that light lands on the retina properly, sharpening the patient’s vision. Lori says, at first, it worked well for her late husband. But within a year, he started developing problems in one eye and doctors recommended an "enhancement" with another RK. His vision stabilized for a number of years until 2009, when he started to have fluctuations in his vision.
“Things would be blurry,” she said. “He started having the halos and starbursts and ghosting effect and it was posing a lot of challenges for him at work. He could not focus on the computer screen and the lighting was bothering him.”
Following doctors’ advice to solve his problems with another treatment called PRK, which uses a laser to reshape the cornea. Tim Fentem underwent another four PRK procedures between 2010 and 2013. But he remained unable to work, Lori Fentem says, because he was unable to see clearly, developed headaches and suffered anxiety.
“Every day he regretted it (the initial RK surgery),“ she said, explaining that he found no relief with glasses or specialized scleral lenses that cover damaged corneas. He also developed cataracts, which is unusual for someone in their early 40s.
Desperate to normalize his vision, Fentem travelled to see eye specialists in Florida and California – who said they couldn’t help him because of his multiple eye treatments.
Against the advice of his PRK surgeon, he also underwent a procedure called corneal crosslinking, which uses UV light and a photosensitizer to strengthen the cornea.
By 2013, his vision stabilized enough to allow Fentem to return to some measure of normalcy in life. He returned to work in the insurance industry, was able to exercise and even go on vacations, but still had vision problems and could not drive at night. He also suffered from painful dry eyes, and had to wear glasses, both outdoors and indoors, because he was painfully sensitive to light.
Then, in 2016, Fentem suffered a sudden retinal detachment – not uncommon for people with myopia.
But his eye didn’t heal normally after the treatment.
“He would see images in each eye in two different sizes so it would be like his brain was not reconciling the images he was seeing between the eye that would not heal and the other eye,” Lori Fentem said. “He literally wanted to take sleeping pills and close all the blinds and the doors and sleep all day because it was like torture for him to be awake.”
On short term disability – and still suffering – Lori says his eye specialist told him to return to work. She thinks the lack of support pushed him over the edge.
On July 19, 2016, Fentem died by suicide, leaving an apologetic note explaining that he was convinced he would never get better.
“It said, ‘Please forgive me, I can’t do this anymore. My eyes are wrecked.”
His story is strikingly similar to that of a Canadian man, Paul Fitzpatrick of Oakville, Ont., who ended his life in October after more than 20 years of pain related to eye surgery.
Lori Fentem says, when she was sent news reports of a Detroit meterologist, Jessica Star, who died by suicide in December, after suffering painful complications related to Lasik Eye surgery, she decided to tell Tim’s story.
“It reinforced to me there are other people out there going through this, suffering in a silo ... and the medical community doesn’t understand it and doesn’t know how to respond to it.”
Although Fentem’s last eye specialist said the retinal detachment had nothing to do with his previous surgeries, Lori remains skeptical.
“I have a hard time believing that, with the architecture of his eye being so damaged from all of his multiple surgeries …there has to be a correlation - whether they admit it or not. When he had the retinal detachment, his depression kicked in 100 per cent.”
Doctors say that severe complications from RK and PRK are rare and that many patients have good and long lasting results.
Lori Fentem says, no matter the risk, people should be informed.
“I think people should know that, even if it is a small percentage… I think patients have a right to know how bad the complications could be before they make a decision for something that is not medically necessary.”