Getting Laser Eye Surgery in South Korea
Before leaving to be an EPIK teacher in Gwangju, South Korea, I asked my optometrist how bad my eyes had gotten. He answered, “All you need now is a seeing-eye dog and a cane.” So naturally, when I arrived in Korea and heard my fellow expats talk about how cheap laser eye surgery is there, I was immediately interested and began researching right away.
Go to Seoul?
I first thought I should have the surgery in Seoul. I figured that it would be best to have such a big operation in the capital instead of what the Koreans consider a “small” city like Gwangju. However, I noticed that the procedure is quite popular and reputable for being safe in all parts of this country. I also thought that it would save me a lot of money not to have to take a bus to Seoul for a few hours, stay at a hostel or hotel, and take a bus back.
Explore Your Options
If you’re considering having laser eye surgery in Korea, I advise you to not settle on the first place you find. At one clinic I went to in the neighborhood of Sangmu, the receptionists didn’t speak any English and we went through many rounds of awkward and frustrating charades before the language barrier won. The next clinic I tried told me I needed several days without using my contact lenses before they would even look at me. I was leaving that clinic, thinking I wouldn’t get an appointment until the following week, when I saw another clinic right across the street. This clinic, right by the U-Square Bus Terminal, is in a very tall building with a GIANT eye at the top. Think Eye of Sauron from Lord of the Rings. As a big LOTR fan, I took this as a sign.
I was not disappointed. The waiting room looked like the inside of a fancy coffee shop. I started my usual delivery of slow, broken English to the receptionists behind the counter. They told me to sit down and one of the women immediately called up someone on the phone. Within two minutes, I was face-to-face with a “medical interpreter” named Jean who spoke fluent English. She asked a couple questions and I was lead to a room right then to do some eye tests to see if I was eligible for the surgery. Easy as that. You would be surprised at how different the process is for each clinic even though it’s for the same operation. The eye tests cost me 10,000 won ($10).
Differences between Lasik and Lasek
They told me I had great corneas (imagine hearing that compliment at a bar) and I was a good candidate for the surgery. The thickness of your corneas determines whether you can get Lasik, Lasek, or neither; the thicker, the better. Lasik and Lasek are the two types of laser eye surgery. Lasik is the less painful procedure with a faster recovery time. During a Lasik procedure, the doctor will cut a flap in the outer cornea, apply the laser, and then replace the flap. During a Lasek procedure, the doctor will rub off the outer layer of the cornea completely with an alcohol solution and then apply the laser. In some cases, they will replace the layer, but in other cases, they will discard it. Because the entire layer is removed, Lasek is more painful and the recovery time is longer. With Lasik, you could go back to work in 24-48 hours. With Lasek, you would need about a week. There is more of a chance for complications with Lasik, but it is by far the most popular procedure. Both procedures are very safe and cost the same.
I paid 1,000,000 won ($970) in total. My friend who only had the operation on one eye at the same place paid 600,000 won ($580). The price for laser eye surgery in Korea astounds me because in the United States, the operation would cost about $2,073 per eye! That’s $4,146 for the entire procedure in the U.S.
Let me walk you through what happened during the surgery. I lied down and was given a stuffed animal. I was so nervous I can’t tell you if mine was a bear or a crocodile. As I was wringing the poor thing, the nurse strapped my face to the headrest so I couldn’t move. They wiped my face and then painted something brown on my eyes and the surrounding area. I looked to see an intimidating machine with a blinking red light right above me. They opened one of my eyes with something that resembled a thick paper towel and clamped open the eye the doctor was about to operate on. There was some small pain here (just picture someone opening your eye by pulling at your skin above and below it). I started panicking at this point because it seemed like a scene from Saw with me being strapped in and my eye forced open. The doctor poured solution on my eye, numbing it. He started poking my eye, but I didn’t feel pain. However, the next part was the slightly painful part of the procedure. I don’t know what it was for, but the best description I can give is that it looked like a brown suction cup. The pain felt like someone squeezing your eyeball. After this cup was applied to my eye, I started to lose my vision. Fade to black. I believe this was when he was cutting the flap. My vision eventually came back and I saw the doctor putting the flap back. The whole procedure for one eye took only five minutes.
I had to buy three different kinds of eye drops after the surgery for a total of 22,000 won ($21). Eyes get extremely dry after laser eye surgery and so it is very important to use the eye drops as instructed. They also gave me plastic protective eye coverings I had to wear at night so I wouldn’t rub my eyes in my sleep.
The worst pain for me came after the operation so when they advise you to buy the Tylenol, buy the Tylenol. After I came out of the surgery, I was amazed that I could already see! My vision was blurry, but it was still there. I didn’t feel much pain then because my eyes were still under the effects of the numbing drops. My biggest mistake was being too smug and heading over to T.G.I. Friday’s with my friend right after the surgery for a nice, overly-priced dinner. The dinner started off fine. My eyes felt a little sore and they were tearing up at random times. By the end of the dinner, I was asking the waitress for more napkins to wipe the tears streaming down my face and to blow my now very runny nose. I was then lead out arm-in-arm by my friend because my eyes hurt so badly I could hardly open them. My advice: Go home right after the surgery and immediately take a nap because the first few hours are the most painful.
When I got home, my eyes were in so much pain that they felt like I was opening them in a bucket of seawater and keeping them open there for hours straight. I couldn’t open my eyes. I sat upright in my bed, clutching my roll of toilet paper for dear life with one hand and blowing my nose with the other. My friend who had her surgery done the next day told me she had no post-surgery pain; she had taken my advice and took a nap straight after her operation. Six hours after the surgery, my pain subsided and I was able to open my eyes again. By the next day, the only pain I felt was extremely slight like the irritation you feel when a contact gets behind your eye or when you put in a contact the wrong way.
Some extra things to know about the surgery:
1) You can’t wear contact lenses for five days before the surgery date.
2) You can’t wash your face or take a shower for three days after the surgery (four or five days for Lasek).
3) You can’t wear basic make-up until three days later, powder and eye-shadow until two weeks later, and mascara and eye-liner until three weeks later.
4) You can’t drink alcohol for one week and you shouldn’t get very intoxicated for an entire month.
5) You can’t swim for about one month.
6) You can’t drive for at least two to three weeks.
7) You shouldn’t play any sport for about two months.
8) You have to visit the clinic again the next day for a check-up. You will be able to see enough to do this on your own (if you did Lasik). Then, you do a check-up the following week and one more in two to four weeks.
Worth Every Won
Despite the brief pain and minor annoyances, I definitely think laser eye surgery is worth every won. To think that I had terrible eyesight for 13 years and my vision was restored in one day is amazing. There is a 95% chance that I will have 20/20 vision for the rest of my life. For just $970, I no longer have to buy another box of contact lens or a pair of glasses again.
When I first arrived in Gwangju, I never would have thought to have surgery in a foreign country. Laser eye surgery was a distant dream for “when I get rich one day.” But in addition to providing me with an incredible opportunity to work with children, Korea has also improved my quality of life. I highly recommend making the most of the country’s affordable and quality healthcare while you enjoy the rest of your life-changing experiences.