Originally created 04/12/98

A new vision

In 1959, a new pair of spectacles turned Ernie Vossler into the most-improved golfer on the PGA tour.

Mr. Vossler, once a Masters Tournament contender, said his new glasses helped him in judging distances and made him feel better and more relaxed on the course. "They gave me a new outlook," he told a reporter in 1959.

Nearly 40 years later, a visit to the optometrist has made a difference for another bespectacled player, but in a different way.

Tom Kite, once easy to spot on the course because of his thick glasses, has shed his signature frames and his vision problems.

In January, right after the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Mr. Kite had LASIK surgery to correct his nearsightedness. Almost overnight, his vision improved from 20/480 without glasses to better-than-perfect 20/15.

For years, Mr. Kite had worn heavy, thick glasses that improved his vision to 20/20. But his eyesight was getting worse every year, he said, and the glasses were always a problem on the golf course.

They slipped and slid in the perspiration on his nose, and in the rain the lenses clouded with water droplets. Mr. Kite's caddy was forever handing him a dry towel to wipe the rain away.

After 4' years of investigating the procedure, Mr. Kite decided to have LASIK surgery, a laser procedure that reshapes the nearsighted eye.

"I made an investment in doing this," said Mr. Kite, who threw all his thick, ugly eyeglasses away after the successful surgery. "It's the best $4,600 I've ever spent."

Denver optometrist Craig Farnsworth convinced Mr. Kite to have LASIK, and ophthalmologist Lawrence Spivak of Denver's Spivak Vision Clinic did the surgery.

Dr. Farnsworth, who is also the chairman of Sports Eye Enhancements in Colorado, has developed a training system for golfers to improve their games -- specifically putting -- by fine-tuning hand-eye coordination and visual perception. The optometrist wrote an instructional manual See It and Sink It based on his work with Nick Faldo and other pro golfers.

The first time Mr. Kite returned to the golf course after his surgery he played worse than normal because he could see everything better. At 20/15, his vision was better than it ever had been with glasses.

"The ball looked so big, so close that every time I swung, I buried the club in the ground," he said. "I see something new every day."

By the Buick Invitational in early February, he was getting used to his new eyes and shot 7 under par for a 22nd-place tie. Last year, Mr. Kite tied for 38th in the tournament.

Mr. Kite has played in five other tournaments since his surgery, and his game seems to have improved slightly over last year.

He tied for 25th place at the Bay Hill Invitational, after a 22nd-place tie last year. He also tied for 25th place at The Players Championship; he didn't even make the cut for that tournament in 1997.

This year, Mr. Kite also missed the cut for the Tucson Chrysler Classic, where he tied for fifth place in 1997. For the second year in a row, he missed the cut for the Doral-Ryder Open. In 1997, Mr. Kite tied for 41st place in the Honda Classic. He skipped that tournament this year to play at the Nissan Open, where he finished with a 29th place tie.

Doctors who do LASIK surgery -- short for Laser In Situ Keratomileusis -- don't guarantee results, but most patients see as well after surgery as they did while wearing glasses or contacts, said Howard Bruckner of the Academy of Cataract and Laser Surgery on Broad Street.

Improvements like Mr. Kite's "we call that nice results," Dr. Bruckner said. "That's what we aim for and that's why we do the procedures."

The procedure only works on nearsighted people who can see close up, not farsighted people whose eyesight is better far away.

Some patients' vision, however, will not improve with LASIK. There is a slight risk of infection, corneal scarring or over-correction, resulting in farsightedness. After surgery, some patients will not be able to wear contact lenses again and most older patients may still require reading glasses.

But for many, like Mary Boerste, the benefits outweigh the risks.Moments before the surgery -- the last time Mrs. Boerste would ever wore her glasses -- she unceremoniously propped them atop the laser computer.

The ear pieces splayed out from the frames, like a pair of dead legs. The lenses, thin at the center and thick as a windshield at the edges, stared at a sterile surgical tray.

Without them, Mrs. Boerste was practically blind. Faces were featureless blurs and the most she could recognize were a couple of wiggling fingers just a few inches from her face.

In forty minutes -- most of it spent waiting -- ophthalmologist S. Allan Stocks sliced a microscopic thin layer from Mrs. Boerste's cornea and zapped the window of her eye with a cold laser. In less than a minute, the laser reshaped Mrs. Boerste's steeply curved cornea and erased her nearsightedness.

"What time is it?" a surgical assistant asked as the 29-year-old patient rose slowly from her reclined chair. The Belvedere, S.C., woman looked to the far wall at a clock she couldn't see before the operation.

"It's 10 after 4," she answered.

During LASIK surgery, patients are awake but their eyes are numbed with special anesthetic drops. Some patients take Valium or other sedatives to calm their nerves.

Once the eye is numb, the ophthalmologist inserts a speculum to hold the eye open. He then uses a $50,000 tool, called a microkeratome, to cut a microscopic flap from the cornea or window of the eye. The flap is turned aside, and the doctor, peering through a microscope, aims an Excimer laser at the exposed cornea for a minute or less, burning away tissue that causes bad vision.

The flap is repositioned on the cornea and within three minutes, it reattaches itself to the eye.

Eye surgeons in other countries have been doing the LASIK procedure for a decade or more, but it is only a few years old here. The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medical devices, has not approved the Excimer laser for LASIK, only for a similar procedure called photorefractive keratectomy or PRK.

In PRK, no corneal flap is cut, and the laser is aimed directly at the cornea. This sometimes causes scarring, and patients may see a haze or halos around light.

"It's like having a skinned knee on your cornea," said Bobbie McLaughlin, a laser operator who works for Dr. Stocks at the Augusta Laser Center on Walton Way Extension.

With PRK, patients may experience more pain, and it may take longer for their vision to improve, both Augusta ophthalmologists said. Though it's not FDA approved, physicians are allowed to do LASIK surgery if it's the best course of treatment for the patient.

Most insurance companies do not pay for LASIK surgery, which costs $2,000-$2,500 per eye, because it is elective and not FDA sanctioned. Yet many patients endure the expense to escape the burdens of contacts or glasses.

Mrs. Boerste, for example, charged her operation to a credit card. She wore contacts for about 10 years, but switched to glasses a year ago when her eyes developed an intolerance to the lenses.

"I just got to the point where I couldn't wear them any more because I would just be teary eyed all the time," said Mrs. Boerste, a radiation therapist at Carolina Cancer Center. Her glasses got in her way at work and at home during play with her 5-year-old son. And she was constantly breaking them, going through three pairs in a year.

Dr. Stocks and Dr. Bruckner both said they treat many people who are contact-lens intolerant, as well as athletes and outdoorsy people who don't want to bother with corrective lenses.

"Certainly convenience has a lot to do with it," Dr. Bruckner said.

Debra Purvis, who lives 60 miles southwest of Augusta in Wadley, Ga., wore contacts for 23 years before her LASIK surgery in March. But the contacts didn't always fit her lifestyle.

Mrs. Purvis' 3-year-old daughter Paige is developmentally handicapped, and she often calls for her mother in the middle of the night. Mrs. Purvis, 36, didn't own a pair of glasses, and without her contacts, she could only see a few inches in front of her face.

It took her five to 10 minutes stumble through the dark to the bathroom, wash her hands and eyes and put on the contacts.

"That was too much time if she needed me right away," she said.

Staff Writer Rick Dorsey contributed to this article.


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