He slid his knife into my eyeball, and I smiled. The feeling was euphoric. Which had less to do with the blade slicing through the mutated film invading my iris and more to do with the Versed coursing through my veins. Minutes earlier, I lay naked beneath my hospital gown in bed. I was scared. The nurse had just slipped a chilling IV into my vein and asked if I felt comfortable. I did not. And I’m not afraid of needles. As a Type One diabetic, I actually have a subcutaneous catheter pulsing insulin into my body 24-hours a day. That’s been the case every day for the last 27 years. So needles don’t freak me out. But needles in my veins do. And knives in my eyeballs do. So just before the anesthesiologist titrated Versed into my system, I blinked my shiny glozzies and asked myself, “Why the hell am I doing this?” I may have said it out loud. After all, getting a pterygium removed, for the most part, is an elective surgery. The doctor told me I’d need to remove it at some point, but there are no guarantees that it will not return – or worse yet – that the surgery might actually damage your eyeball.
But the answer was simple: My eye hurt. Every day. And it was only getting worse. And quickly. I figured I would use some of youth’s magical healing powers before they expired (I was just shy of 30). And there I was, about to get stabbed in the eye. Voluntarily.
If you’re reading this, you probably know what a pterygium is, and more likely, you’re considering getting the same surgery. Or you’ve gotten it too and can relate. For those who don’t know, a pterygium is a benign (non-cancerous) growth that typically develops in the corner of your eyeball and grows towards the center of the eye to protect it from the elements. It’s also called surfer’s eye; it can grow red and painful, and it can actually impair your vision, too.
After tolerating all of the above for about five years, I finally sacked up and decided to do something about it. Here are a few things I learned from the experience that might be useful if you’re in a similar position. And if you’ve had a pterygium removed, please share any of your own insights below. It’s a scary procedure, but the more we’re able to share our experiences the more knowledge is available for future candidates. Here’s my pterygium surgery survivor’s tale:
1. It’s a hard decision. A lot of surfers never really deal with it, and they’re fine. In my case, I hadn’t the faintest trace of a pterygium on my eyeball just five years earlier. Nothing. It seemed to be doubling in size each year, and its growth rate was alarming. Sometimes, pterygiums suspend growth. Then you can coexist. But when it covers your cornea like a lid, and they have to slice it off of your pupil when you’re sixty, I can’t imagine anyone’s too excited. For fear of the latter, I figured, let’s do this. Now.
2. If you decide to do it, get the more invasive surgery. My doctor told me that the recurrence rate of regular pterygium removal surgery is nearly fifty percent. FIFTY! So why bother, right? Well, if you instead get a graft, where the doctor grafts healthy conjunctiva from a different part of your eye, then stitches and glues (Yes: stitches AND glues) it into the damaged conjunctiva, that reduces the recurrence rate to less than 10%. I’m no math genius, but that’s worth it.
3. Confirm that the surgery falls within your insurance plan. My insurance paid for itself and then some this year with this surgery. What could have been a procedure that put me in debt for some time to come, luckily did not. And that requires a fair amount of research. Certain surgery centers fall outside of coverage, even if the procedure is cleared. So be sure to figure that out so you don’t end up with a bleeding wallet to match your eye.
4. Be ready to sit out of the water for at least a month. Like all water. The doctor likened the surgery to placing a wet piece of tissue over top of your eyeball, and if water hits it, it will destroy it. That means no shower water hitting your eyes for the first week. Read: no shower on your face. And definitely no ocean water for up to a month. Luckily, a crossed up swell hit Oxnard THE DAY before my surgery, and I made it into a handful of almighty, rare Southern California barrels before sitting on the bench for a month, and that held me over just fine. I actually started to enjoy not caring about the ocean conditions at all for a change – knowing there was absolutely no chance that I’d partake. That said, it messed with my exercise patterns pretty badly – as I tried to workout within a week, and that aggravated my eyeball, which already looked like a bloody mess. Ultimately, I had no desire to rush or threaten my eyeball’s recovery. I couldn’t imagine a session that might be worth disrupting the gnarly surgery I just experienced. So I didn’t surf or snowboard (it was winter) for a full six weeks. Even then, I was cautious, because I’m NOT trying to get this surgery again.
5. I was awake during the surgery. Yup. Awake. Alas, the in-surgery sedation is fascinating. The doctor told me I needed to be responsive as he operated so he could direct me: Look up, look down, and so on. The prospect of being awake during the surgery terrified me. Never in a million years would I imagine a situation where not only am I at ease with having a knife in my eyeball, but I ENJOY it. That is absolutely amazing that we, as human beings, have evolved to a place where that’s possible. But hey, Versed, which is a benzodiazepine that can cause partial memory loss, is a hell of a drug.
6. Be ready to wear an eyepatch. This is actually cool. Only thing is that it looks more like a urinal cake – as a friend pointed out to me. I only had mine for a day, though. and that’s a good thing. You don’t want to touch your eye at first. You don’t want anything else to touch your eye. Just let it rest in darkness.
7. Getting the eyepatch removed was a crazy experience. It’s amazing how quickly the human body creates a new normal for itself. After being traumatized from the surgery, my eye eagerly normalized to darkness as it recovered. So much so that when I took off the patch, it didn’t want to open. Granted, this process took probably two minutes max, but the eye was leaking a faucet of tears when the doctor peeled off the patch. The traumatized eyeball wanted one thing: to be closed while it healed. Getting good sleep always seemed to accelerate the eyeball’s healing, so I tried to get a lot of it. That’s the only time the eye was able to fully rest.
8. The initial eye boogers are prizeworthy. It’s never been so satisfying to wake up in the morning and peel a couple millimeter jagged rock of hardened secretions out of the corner of your eye. No better way to start the day. Some of those treasures were straight impressive.
9. My vision improved immediately. Even through the tears, the very first time I looked at an eye chart, I could read a full two lines lower than before. They say the pterygium pressure can stretch the eyeball, causing astigmatism. I suppose it’s possible that the pressure was already relieved just a day after surgery, but I was pretty shocked to have improved my vision so quickly. Within two weeks, my vision went from 20/30 to 20/20. That’s pretty awesome. Today, I still question the gains made within the first few days, but my vision has certainly improved.
10. My eye turned grossly yellow. Apparently, the straw color is a result of fluid that leaks from the swollen blood vessels as it recovers. It’s not puss or infection, but it’s nasty. And it’s normal. And temporary.
11. The eyeball heals quickly. Everyone says that, but it takes a knife to the eye to really internalize it. I took a photo each week for the first six weeks of my recovery. Check it out. And as I mentioned earlier, in the first days, getting good sleep was imperative. Sometimes, I would wake up and immediately notice a reduction in pain or swelling.
12. I wore a hard, protective contact lens for nearly a month after the surgery. According to the doctor, this actually helps reduce the pain and stabilizes the sensitive tissue. Similar to the removal of the eye patch, the eyeball then normalizes to have a hard contact over it for nearly a month. When I got that taken out, again, the eye leaded like a sieve with the new found exposure to fresh air. Then quickly accepted the new normal.
13. I was not sedated when the doctor cut the stitches out of my eye a month later. And it freaked me out. The stitches the doctor sews in your eyeball are microscopic, and they’re intended to dissolve over time. I was exceptionally hopeful that mine would dissolve. Most of them did. But not all of them. As a result, the doctor had to take a tiny scissors and clip that last knot as I leaned forward without any sedation. It felt like a tiny pin prick in my eye, and it was over instantly, but I was not excited about it.
14. I have a floater now in my right eye now. I didn’t have that before, and it pisses me off. It’s not there all the time. I seem to especially notice it on gray days when I surf. It’s like a little black grain of rice floating from north to south for a thirty second bursts at a time, and it freaks me out. Most sources say these are normal, but that doesn’t make them any less annoying.
15. My eyes changed colors. Maybe three months after surgery, a handful of people made comments to me about my blue eyes. I thought they were joking. I have hazel green eyes. But after my girlfriend said the same, I gave myself a hard look in the mirror, and, holy crap, the rim of my iris is now steel-grey-blue, and the inside is still hazel. I looked it up online, and most literature says this is a bad thing. If it doesn’t affect my vision or the health of my eyes at all, I guess I like it? And I’m not sure if it’s related to the surgery, but it happened.
16. My eye is still sensitive. It still bothers me a little bit, and it’s still very sensitive to light. Luckily, it doesn’t swell ferociously the way it used to after a day at the beach. That said, I can see new, different red patterns emerging on the same eye, and, what’s worse, it looks like the pterygium on my other eye might be accelerating.
17. I have a barely visible scar. That’s not going away. It’s pretty weird looking if you look closely at it.
18. The pain immediately after is material, but totally manageable. I likened it to being scratched by a saber tooth tiger. Or person. Or pet. It’s definitely a raw scrape on your eye initially, but it doesn’t feel much worse than a really bad, deep scratch. To manage the pain, I was given Tylenol 3, which has little bit of codeine in it, and I probably used that for three days. Then the pain substantially dissolved with every long sleep. Sleep seemed to be my best friend. I actually did emails a few hours after the surgery and did more phone calls and emails the next day, which they highly advise against. But it was possible.
19. You can’t prevent pterygiums. Well, you could. Just don’t go outside. Surfers are particularly helpless, as sunglasses are really the only thing that protect our eyes from harmful UV rays and the elements, and there aren’t any great solutions out there for while you’re surfing. They make you look like Horace Grant of the sea, and I might actually start wearing them. It’s like being a kid at school with a pocket protector. Everyone’s laughing at you, but, hey, look who doesn’t have ink smeared across the breast of their button up. What’s worse? Getting pterygium surgery or being mocked by fellow surfers?
20. Computers don’t cause them. Obviously, I would ask this question. The doctor said they have found absolutely no research that indicate causation between staring at screens and the development of pterygiums. Which is a damn shame. That’d be a welcome fix.
Again, please leave any insights or experiences below. This experience didn’t suck nearly as bad as I thought it might, but maybe there were a few words of wisdom that might have helped me prepare. Sharing is caring, people!