Laser Eye Surgery in Beijing
by David Richinger
Beijing Scene

It may sound terrifying, but repairing vision defects with laser surgery is becoming increasingly common, especially in China. The operation is surprisingly affordable, and increasing numbers of patients mean that Chinese surgeons are more experienced than many of their Western counterparts


It's been many years since I've seen my feet in the shower. This is not because I can't say no to second helpings, but because I'm functionally blind without corrective lenses. Since childhood my myopia (shortsightedness) has worsened. The technical reason is increasingly domed corneas which cause light to focus in front of my retina rather than directly onto it. To compensate, I've had to wear progressively stronger glasses and contact lenses.

The cost and hassle of glasses, contact lenses and prescription sunglasses compelled me to look into corrective surgery. The procedure is becoming more and more common in many Western countries as well as in China. An increasing retinue of satisfied customers encouraged me to visit the Eye Hospital (Tongren Yiyuan) at Chongwenmen to check it out.
"But it's your eyes!" cautioned squeamish friends and relatives - especially my mother who probably bequeathed me the defective eye genes in the first place. Some were surprised that I wanted to have it done in a developing country, but there are at least half a dozen places in Beijing to get corrective laser eye surgery and the standard of surgery is high.

Chinese friends assured me that Tongren is among China's best hospitals and has a strong reputation for ophthalmology. They have performed laser surgery on almost 8200 patients since 1993, about 50 of whom were foreigners (not including overseas Chinese). The hospital itself is in desperate need of basic management. They don't take appointments so people wander in and out of doctor's offices and pace impatiently. Patients jump queues rudely, there are many lines to stand in, and a maddening litany of small fees to pay and pieces of paper to have stamped. (All expatriate managers should be required to go to a Chinese hospital to understand why local employees need a full day for simple procedures there).

Of greatest importance to me, however, was not the behavior of administrators and bureaucrats. I focused on the equipment and the surgeon using it. I wanted the most modern laser equipment on my eyes. Tongren uses two types: an American VISX Star laser with a field upgrade, and a German Schwind laser. These lasers utilize more advanced technology than anything in use in the United States, where surgeons are one step behind due to cautious FDA approval requirements. The surgeons at Tongren claimed that both lasers were of equal quality.
My surgeon, Dr. Lu, gave me final reassurance. She exuded confidence and friendliness in the stressful and resource-strained Chinese hospital. The four surgeons at Tongren probably pass as many people under their lasers as any clinic in the world. Quantity does not necessarily translate into quality, but at least these surgeons are experienced. They also charge a fraction of what their colleagues in the West charge. My entire operation came to RMB10,000 (the rate for foreigners and Chinese is the same). I have heard of places in Canada performing the operation for less, but experienced surgeons command a premium.

When I asked Dr. Lu how myopic readers interested in the procedure could contact her, she cautioned with a giggle: "Of course we will help anyone and foreigners are welcome, but please don't bring so many!" She fears floods of foreigners because there is no shortage of Chinese patients to keep her busy, and communication - about what to expect, the risks, and appropriate behavior - is a very important part of the treatment. They are surgeons and not linguists: "We're not set up to provide proper service in English; I'm afraid they might misunderstand something and later be disappointed and complain."

The Big Day
On October 26 I tripped into Tongren to go under the laser knife. They called us in groups of five into a small room outside the operating theatre where we donned shoe covers and plastic gowns with matching shower caps. The nurse applied local anaesthetic and then washed out our eyes and disinfected our faces. One by one we went into the operating room to get zapped. Almost all of the other patients that day were Chinese women and as they came out of the operating room, the queuing patients would ask if it hurt. "It didn't hurt at all!" each one would insist. Dr. Lu says her typical patients are young Chinese women, and she often operates on athletes, actors, and aspiring soldiers and pilots.
A few minutes later I was on the operating table myself, wondering if my pain threshold was lower than the average young Chinese woman's because it was hurting me! Overall, though, it was less painful than a bad trip to the dentist. Extreme discomfort would best describe the sensation. As I lay there I remembered reading about how many North American eye surgeons give their patients a little Valium to smooth the process and I started to wonder if paying five times the price would have been worth it after all. I was just losing myself in the Muzak theme from "Rocky" piped into the room when the surgeon chuckled in my ear and joked with the others in attendance about how my big nose was getting in the way of her equipment. Besides her amusement at my proboscis, the other thing I remember about the surgery was the audible staccato bursts of the laser beam.

When I got up from the table a few minutes later my vision was cloudy: almost like it would have been with my contact lenses in a Turkish steam bath. The nurse scotch-taped some pieces of plastic over my eyes and told me to keep them on until I came back the next morning. After I stood in another line to pay RMB 5, I somehow groped my way outside to a taxi queue and headed home to bed.

After I got home my eyes started to water and ache as the local-anesthetic drops wore off. I began to think they had botched the operation and I was considering going back to the hospital for help when a friend who had the operation a few months earlier called. She reassured me that tears and discomfort were normal, and for about two hours I writhed and whined about the stinging while my eyes watered prodigiously. Eventually I fell asleep for an hour and when I woke up at about 8 pm, the pain was gone.

The Aftermath
I went back to work the following day and for a few days my eyes felt as though I'd been sleeping with daily-wear contact lenses. A week later all discomfort was gone; my vision improved daily and my distance sight was pretty much perfect.

Three weeks on I still have problems with reading and night vision. The night vision should correct itself over the next year - lights have large spiked halos and, in a fluorescent-lit room, my vision is not very sharp. The reading is something I hope will improve much sooner.