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Sharper Image
Ian Thomsen
June 14, 1999
Old athletes don't fade away. They go to get their corneas shaved by lasers
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June 14, 1999

Sharper Image

Old athletes don't fade away. They go to get their corneas shaved by lasers

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As hall of fame second baseman Rogers Hornsby was accumulating 2,930 hits in the era of Charlie Chaplin, he avoided movie theaters for fear that the bright images would damage his vision. Imagine, then, the horror of the Rajah had he been alive to see 40-year-old Wade Boggs lying on his back in an operating room at the Omega Eye Associates clinic in Tampa in February. Needing only 78 hits to reach 3,000, Boggs paid about $5,000 to have his eyes bathed in anesthetic, his eyelids taped back and a motorized blade—not unlike a miniature lawn mower—propelled across the top of his eyeballs, effectively scalping his corneas.

Boggs was undergoing LASIK, an end-of-the-millennium laser surgery of the cornea, the transparent tissue that covers and protects the front of the eye. The shaved corner of Boggs's cornea—still attached at one end—was flipped back by Dr. Tony Prado, revealing a flattened, thinner layer of cornea to be reshaped as if it were a contact lens atop Boggs's eyeball. Looking through a microscope viewfinder, the doctor took aim with a joystick and, depressing a floor pedal with his foot, fired an invisible cool beam of ultraviolet laser at the middle of Boggs's eye. The laser's housing thumped off a series of hollow clicks that sounded like a machine gun firing empty chambers. The doctor kept his foot on the pedal until the laser had emptied its load, a total of five seconds for each eye. A tiny plume of smoke arose as each microscopic layer was vaporized, reducing the thickness of Boggs's corneas by 2%. The opened flaps were returned to their original positions with no stitches necessary, as the cornea tends to reattach itself as if it were gelatin.

In 1995 the FDA approved the use of lasers for LASIK (an acronym for LASer In situ Keratomileusis). Before having his corneas reshaped by LASIK, Boggs had 20/30 vision in his right eye and 20/40 in his left. He had been wearing contact lenses since 1991 to correct his vision to 20/12, but he was fed up with the dust that gathered beneath them and with the blurred images he occasionally saw. LASIK won't necessarily improve nearsightedness or farsightedness more than corrective lenses do. But Boggs's eyesight is now 20/10, which is in the neighborhood of that of Ted Williams, who supposedly could read the label of a record as it spun on a turntable.

"I'm definitely seeing better—it's amazing," says Boggs, who at week's end was hitting .265 for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and was within 48 hits of 3,000. "As far as tired eyes and not having your contacts in all day, it's great. Wind and sun and all those factors that irritate your eyes, you don't have to worry about keeping your contacts moist."

"There are plenty of great hitters who didn't or don't see nearly as well as Ted Williams did," says Dr. Carmen Puliafito, founder and chairman of the LASIK Institute of Boston and a pioneer of refractive surgery. "This kind of surgery can level the playing field in terms of visual ability."

LASIK is based on a surgical procedure, introduced in Colombia in the 1960s, in which the front third of the cornea was amputated, frozen, resculpted and sewn back onto the eye. It was a dangerous, complicated operation, which required a long recovery time due to the damage caused by the procedure. In 1983 the ultraviolet laser, used originally to etch computer chips, was tested on the cornea of a cow's eyeball. The first trial on a human eye was done in the late '80s, and there were three subsequent series of tests done on control groups. This year, about 980,000 eyes will be repaired by LASIK in the U.S., even though the surgery isn't usually covered by health insurance. Analysts in the eye-laser industry predict that within five years that number will surpass 2.5 million annually, making LASIK one of the most performed surgeries in the U.S.

Boggs joined a growing list of professional athletes who have entrusted their careers to the surgery. Troy Aikman underwent LASIK in March. Two days after having the procedure, golfer Fred Funk took the first-round lead in the 1998 Kemper Open, eventually finishing third. Bernard Gilkey, Wally Joyner, Al Martin and Ben McDonald are among the baseball players who have undergone LASIK.

Athletes seem most impressed by the "crisper" vision afforded by LASIK. Those who had worn contact lenses had seen splotchy images created by the fluids oozing between their eyes and lenses. "Last year I would see a blur," says the 32-year-old Gilkey, who hit a disappointing .233 in 1998. He cut his season short to undergo LASIK on Sept. 16, and on Opening Day '99 he hit two homers. "It has definitely helped improve my vision," says Gilkey, who as of Sunday was hitting .287 as a part-time outfielder for the Arizona Diamondbacks. "As far as performance, I can't say how much it's helped, but if I'm more confident with my vision, it'll pay off."

"It's the best thing that's happened to me in my career," says Martin, the Pittsburgh Pirates' leftfielder. "The biggest thing I've noticed is with defense. I feel like a really good defensive player now. Before, I was nervous—I couldn't get a good jump."

Puliafito recommends LASIK especially for pilots, police officers and anyone in a physically active line of work who can't be bothered with eyewear. One group in particular should benefit: "Umpires," says Puliafito. "When was the last time you saw an umpire who wore glasses? Obviously, it is not in their best interests to be seen wearing glasses. Statistically it's impossible for men their age, that not one of them needs to wear glasses. This surgery is perfect for them: No one ever has to know."