Many people have asked me why I decided to get laser eye surgery in South Korea.
When I answer the question, I always start right back at the beginning. One day on a bus, a friend made an offhand suggestion. Nine words that ended up changing my life:
“You should think about getting LASEK while you’re here.”
I’d been living in Korea for about a month when he planted this idea in my head. I deflected the suggestion at first. The idea of lasers near my eyeballs made me squirm. And I didn’t really have any money to spare for elective surgery. Plus, I had been wearing glasses (and later contact lenses) every day since age four and getting along just fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t point a laser at it.
Well, life has a funny way of surprising us. Eight months later I found myself stretched out in an operating room staring up at the doctor who was about to reshape my corneas and, by extension, my life.
How did I change my mind? Slowly. And then all at once.
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Getting LASEK in Korea
I began to ask my friend more about his LASEK experience, and I supplemented his answers with a lot of Google research. When I started to entertain the idea of laser eye surgery, the benefits of getting it done while I was in Korea became hard to ignore.
Then the tipping point: during a winter break trip I found myself camping out with friends on a tiny, remote island in the Philippines. Our little stretch of beach was breathtakingly beautiful and the evening we spent on it was perfect. As the crackling fire died away we fell back into the white sand one by one and drifted off. Staring up at the stars, my last thought before sleep should have been something appreciative or awestruck. Instead, it was ‘Shit, I didn’t take out my contacts’.
It suddenly clicked for me that my dependence on contact lenses was in conflict with my desire to live and travel as freely as possible. If you’re a vision-impaired wanderer, you know the struggle. You’ve scoured a foreign pharmacy for contact solution after airline security confiscated your bottle, or caused a fumbling scene in a dorm room because your glasses fell between the cracks of your bunk bed in the night. These incidents aren’t a huge deal individually. They add up over time, though, to a significant consideration and cost.
If a potential solution to all of it was staring me in the face, I couldn’t ignore it. So I pushed my fears aside and made the decision to get laser eye surgery as soon as possible. In South Korea.
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Why get LASEK in Korea?
It’s one thing to decide to get laser eye surgery, and quite another to opt to do it in a foreign country.
My choice wasn’t just a matter of timing. I’m Canadian, and in my opinion, getting this surgery in Korea rather than at home was not only manageable, it was a better option. So many of my expat friends have gotten laser eye surgery in Korea, way more than you might statistically predict. What makes it so attractive? Three things always come up when I ask:
- Price. This is the biggest factor for most people. The cost varies by eye clinic and based on your prescription, but it is guaranteed to be a fraction of what you would pay for the same procedure in North America. I paid about a third of what I would have in Canada.
- Accessibility. Once you decide that you want to get laser eye surgery in Korea, it’s incredibly easy to make it happen. There’s an abundance of eye clinics, and at most of them you can have an appointment within days.
- Quality: Korean medical care has a strong reputation for being trustworthy and state-of-the-art. Medical tourism is a major industry here.
I’m not telling you to hop on a plane to Seoul to get your eyes done. This article focuses on getting laser eye surgery in Korea because that’s the experience I can vouch for, but your situation will dictate your options. If you happen to be in Korea then my advice may be especially salient, but wherever you are I maintain that this surgery is worth looking into.
My main point is that you should keep your mind open to opportunities wherever you are. Do your due diligence and make responsible choices, but never rule something out because you’re in an unfamiliar setting.
Preparing for LASEK: Before the Surgery
The first step on the road to better vision in Korea is choosing an eye clinic and booking a consultation. A little online research will yield a lot of options in your area.
The eye clinics in Korea vary widely in size and specialty. Some cater specifically to foreigners, offering all of their services in flawless English. I chose a clinic for locals instead because of the location and the lower prices, but I had to get a colleague to translate for me at my appointments. The consultation is usually free of charge, and you’ll be able to tell from this first visit whether the clinic will meet your needs.
The purpose of the consultation appointment is to determine whether you are a suitable candidate for laser eye surgery. ‘Laser eye surgery’ is an umbrella term for various procedures, and your eyes may be better suited to one over the others. If your corneas are too thin or you have some other outstanding condition, it may not be safe for you to have any surgery at all. During the consultation, which lasts a few hours, medical staff will take you through what feels like every eye test under the sun. When it’s all over, someone will sit down with you to walk through your results and discuss your options.
If you decide to get a surgery, you’ll be briefed on your responsibilities leading up to it. You cannot wear contact lenses in the week beforehand. You’ll also have medicine to take: artificial tears to keep your eyes moist all week, and then eye drops for pain relief and disinfection in the final days beforehand.
Everything leading up to the surgery had been on par with all my past experiences at optometrists’ offices, so I thought the procedure itself would be similar. In fact, it was much more intense. I had to leave my glasses behind as we entered the sharply cool, blindingly bright operating area, so a nurse helped me don a surgical gown and led me by the elbow to the operating chair. I watched several faces swarm overhead before a mechanical contraption lowered over my face. What happened next was surreal.
My eyes were propped open and anesthetized with drops so I felt absolutely nothing, but I watched what seemed like a very close-up movie as my eyeballs were sprayed with water and sculpted with fine metal tools. The actual laser was a blinking green light that I was told to focus on intently while a nurse to my left counted down determinedly in Korean. It was totally weird, but it was over so quickly that the strangeness didn’t have time to morph into discomfort. I think I was in and out of the chair in ten minutes. When the machinery was pushed aside and I lifted myself onto my elbows, a huge smile spread across my face: I could see. The nurse whose face had been a formless blur to me ten minutes before smiled back.
The first few days of recovery after laser eye surgery are by far the worst. I was lulled into thinking it may not be that bad because I felt so normal on my way home from the clinic. My tone changed a few hours later when the anesthetic wore off. For about the next three days my eyes were itchy, dry, mildly painful, and extremely sensitive to light.
A friend and I arranged to have our surgeries at the same time so we could weather the storm together (which I highly recommend, if you can swing it). We camped out in her apartment listening to all the podcasts we could get our hands on and looking super dorky in our protective goggles. You should definitely prearrange for a friend to check in on you during this time, because you’re supposed to avoid looking at your phone screen. It’ll be a good test of your friendship, because you also aren’t allowed to shower.
I had my surgery on Friday, and by Tuesday my vision was still a little blurry but I felt fine and went back to work without incident. The blurriness recedes gradually – the doctor told me it takes the average patient three months to reach optimal vision. I have to continue taking some eye drops and be sure to wear UV protection outdoors for about six months, and I have to return to the eye clinic for monthly check ups. All of this is very reasonable, and the doctors have promised to give me everything I need to continue my checkups elsewhere when I move on from Korea. Overall, the recovery process has felt like a negligible price to pay for the ability to see.
Seeing the Light
This morning at a check up I did something that has eluded me for twenty-one years: I read the lowest, smallest row of figures on the eye chart. The doctor informed me, officially, that I have 20/20 vision. Me! With perfect vision. Woah.
My new reality keeps taking me by surprise. I’ll be browsing the cereal aisle, or reading an email, and then remember suddenly that I’m doing it without contacts in or glasses on. It would be hard to overstate how exciting this is for me, especially as a traveler. I have one less thing on my packing list, one less obstacle to spontaneity. If your eyes are like mine were, you’ll know what I mean and I hope that you’ll give laser eye surgery some thought, wherever you may be.
Embracing life abroad comes in stages. Even after I’d taken a job and moved into an apartment here in Korea, there were elements of my life that I was subconsciously ‘pausing’. Anything too daunting could be dealt with back in Canada one day. Laser eye surgery fell into this category when my friend first brought it up. The idea became too appealing to put off, though, so I took a step outside my comfort zone and pursued the surgery in Korea. As a result, I saved a lot of money and I created room for new possibilities in my life.
I can’t imagine having gone a day longer without this. If you’ll excuse the pun, I’ve seen the light and I’m more open now to everything that this world of ours has to offer.
If you are looking for more information on LASIK/LASEK in general, or about getting laser eye surgery in South Korea, have a look below at these helpful links!
Corrective Eye Surgery Basics: a helpful breakdown of the different types of laser eye surgery.
Visit Medical Korea: more information on medical tourism in Korea, in case you’ve been particularly swayed by my arguments and are considering making a trip.
Claire calls Canada home, but she’s building a life abroad. She currently lives in Incheon, South Korea, where she teaches English. She’s a certified yoga instructor and an uncertified coffee enthusiast. You can follow her forays into South Korean culture on Instagram.
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