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Foggy glasses boost demand for laser eye surgery during pandemic04:00
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Dr. Samir Melki at work during a LASIK corrective eye surgery operation. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Dr. Samir Melki at work during a LASIK corrective eye surgery operation. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Tom Eighmey had to do something when he found he couldn't go to work without his glasses fogging up.

"I noticed it almost the moment I would walk into school," said Eighmey, who teaches math and coaches football and lacrosse at St. John's Prep in Danvers. "It was like immediate fogginess."

Eighmey tried tightening his masks, adding metal strips to hold them securely on his nose and even spraying chemicals on the lenses to reduce the condensation. Nothing worked. So Eighmey tried another increasingly popular solution: Laser surgery.

The American Refractive Surgery Council estimated nearly 834,000 people received laser vision correction in 2021, the highest number since it started counting the procedures in 2015.

One of the procedures is LASIK, in which doctors remove tissue from the cornea to help people with conditions like astigmatism and nearsightedness.

Dr. Samir Melki works on a laser assisted eye surgery patient. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Dr. Samir Melki works on a LASIK patient at his clinic in Brookline. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

That renewed interest means it's boom time at Boston Vision in Brookline. Dr. Samir Melki said his business is up 30% compared to pre-pandemic levels. And one of the biggest reasons is foggy glasses.

Melki also noted many people have more money to spend on eye surgery, since they have had to cut back in so many other areas during the pandemic.

"People are not traveling as much, so they have disposable income that they can spend on procedures," Melki said. He noted many patients also thought it was a good time for the procedure, because so they were already working from home, where it might be easier to recover.

But laser surgery isn’t for everyone.

Clinical technician Alexi Melki prepares a patient for laser eye surgery. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Clinical technician Alexi Melki prepares a patient for laser eye surgery. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Some worry about the risk, even though the American Academy of Ophthalmology reports that complications from LASIK are rare and 95% of patients are "satisfied with their outcome after LASIK surgery."

Dr. Thomas Steinemann, an academy spokesman, also pointed out the surgery isn't guaranteed to eliminate the need for glasses forever. He said that's because eyes change with age, which can cause the positive effects of laser correction to wear off.

And there are simpler ways to deal with foggy lenses.

As an eye surgeon, Steinemann has had to deal with glasses and a mask for his entire career. Instead of corrective surgery, he found another trick: taping the mask over the bridge of his nose to keep the air from steaming up his glasses.

Steinemann also tells patients to keep their glasses scratch-free and to clean them every day with microfiber cloth and some water. "Never dry," he warned.

And some people just dig the way glasses look, like Danvers-based barista Sean Painter. Painter's job doesn't require him to talk as much as a math teacher. But he regularly faces the steam of cappuccinos and lattes.

Painter said he's considered LASIK, but decided it wasn't worth it.

"I haven't had enough hassle with my glasses to really commit to that kind of thing," he said. "And I also generally like the way I look in glasses."

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A patient during a LASIK corrective eye surgery operation at Boston Vision. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
A patient during a LASIK corrective eye surgery operation at Boston Vision. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

And then, Painter said, there's the fact that LASIK costs north of $5,000 in the U.S.

But some people have the cash and say they think the surgery is worth it.

Eighmey, who teaches math in Danvers, had amassed money for downpayment a new house. But he had trouble finding a place because of the hot market. So he went ahead and spent some of his nest-egg on LASIK.

And he said he couldn't be happier with his decision. Before the surgery, he couldn't even see his television clearly from the living room couch without his glasses. Afterward, he could suddenly see details like the numbers on a neighbor's house.

"It was amazing," he said. "It was just unbelievable. I will not forget that moment."

This segment aired on January 31, 2022.

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Simón Rios Twitter Reporter
Simón Ríos is an award-winning bilingual reporter in WBUR's newsroom.

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