Before laser eye surgery, radial keratotomy was the first and one of the most common surgical procedures in North America to correct myopia, or nearsightedness. Today, however, this once-celebrated treatment has largely been abandoned, in part because of questions over its safety.
At the height of its popularity in the 1980s and 1990s, an estimated eight million people in Canada and United States underwent the procedure, in which a doctor uses a diamond knife to make incisions directly into the cornea of the eye. While some have -- and continue -- to do well, others say that radial keratotomy, or RK for short, has left them with painful, life-changing complications.
Ingrid Babjak is one of them.
‘I DON’T WANT TO BE BLIND’
Babjak, who lives in Oakville, Ont., underwent RK 27 years ago. At first, she says, her eyesight “immediately” improved.
“I remember when he finished making the eight cuts, I was able to see absolutely every dot on that ceiling,” Babjak told CTV News. “I remember being so happy.”
But now, nearly three decades later, Babjak says she experiences constant eye pain and blurred vision that has left her cloistered at home.
“I’ve got vitreous degeneration on both sides; that’s the separation of the white part in your eye,” she said.
“I don’t want to go out because the dryness is so bad, especially in the winter,” she added. “So it’s better just to be by myself -- that’s how I feel.”
The long-term complications she’s experienced from RK have also left Babjak fearing for her future.
“I don’t want to be blind and I’m scared of that,” she said. “I don't want to be a burden to my daughter.”
‘BIGGEST MISTAKE OF MY LIFE’
Bambi Cox of Newmarket, Ont. also claims to have experienced severe complications from RK decades after going under the knife in 1995.
“It just seemed like the next step a lot of people were doing so that you didn’t have to be bothered with the pain of glasses,” she told CTV News.
At first, she says, the results were “great.”
“The next day I was at the Blue Jays game and I was able to see,” she said.
But then, years later, things started to take a turn for the worse.
“It was 20 years after my RK surgery that I noticed that my eyes were blurry and I was having extreme dryness,” Cox recalled. “My vision seemed to be fluctuating… it was very disconcerting.”
Cox says she now suffers from eye pain that she describes as “sharp, like a knife” and halo vision. These days, she survives on frequent eye drops for “debilitating” dryness and needs to wear dark sunglasses whenever she is outside because of extreme light sensitivity. Previously working as an administrative assistant, Cox is also now out of a job because she could no longer stand the agony of staring at screens.
“I’ve lost my livelihood… I could lose my house,” she said. “It's the biggest mistake of my life and it certainly changed my life and if I allow it to, it gets really… depressing.”
‘IT WASN'T AN EXACT SCIENCE’
Dr. Edward Boshnick is a Miami-based optometrist who specializes in treating those who have experienced vision loss or discomfort from past eye surgeries. It’s not uncommon, he says, for RK patients to develop complications long after undergoing the procedure.
“After the surgery is done, that cornea can change shape, so it doesn’t have the same rigidity,” he told CTV News. “A lot of these patients, maybe most of them, became very farsighted and very astigmatic because the irregularity of the cornea increased.”
Other RK complications, Boshnick explained, can include “dry eye, ocular pain… glare, halos, multiple vision.”
“Many of these patients with each eye, they may see two or three objects,” he added. “It’s one thing saying, ‘My eyes feel dry,’ but how about every time you blink it’s like sandpaper scraping over your corneas? Or sometimes you can’t even open up your eyes… And light sensitivity is another big issue because the cornea is so irritated they can’t go outdoors without sunglasses or multiple pairs of sunglasses, one over the other.”
Toronto-based optometrist Dr. Shalu Pal says she has seen multiple cases of RK patients left with severely-damaged corneas.
“The problem with it, it was all done freehand,” Pal said of RK. “It was, ‘You have this much astigmatism, you have this much myopia, let's try two cuts, let's try four cuts,’ and it wasn't an exact science.”
Pal is also one of a handful of Canadian optometrists trying to help suffering RK patients with something called scleral lenses, which are large fluid-filled contact lenses that can shield damaged corneas. They are also custom-made from impressions of the eye surface.
“It’s a very comfortable lens and all of the irregular shape that was created from these incisions can now be corrected with this lens design,” she said. “I have seen dramatic improvements in vision and in comfort and in quality of life, which is the huge thing.”
‘VICTIM OF AN EXPERIMENT’
Scleral lenses, however, did not help Babjak or Cox. And while it remains unknown how many others are suffering nightmarish complications like theirs, both women want to raise alarms about the long-term safety of the now largely-abandoned procedure.
“The benefits never outweighed the risk and they should have told us that,” Cox said. “I feel like a guinea pig. I feel like I was led down the garden path of roses.”
“I was a victim of an experiment,” Babjak added. “I feel betrayed because it shouldn’t have been allowed to happen.”
Some patients have set up a website dedicated to educating and helping RK survivors. For more information, you can click here.