A month before taking her own life on Dec. 12, Jessica Starr, the Fox 2 Detroit (WJBK-TV) meteorologist, shared that she was still struggling with complications such as dry eyes and blurred vision from her Lasik-type eye surgery in October.
"I do still need all the prayers and the well-wishes because it’s a hard go," Starr, 35, a mother of two young children, said in a video on her public Facebook page.
The role that those complications played in Starr's suicide — if any — remains unclear, but her comments spawned nationwide headlines after her death and new attention to potential dangers of the popular eyesight procedure that has been available since the 1990s and is widely perceived as safe.
News reports and websites such as Lasikcomplications.com have cited nearly a dozen instances of Lasik patients who were driven to suicide by the unbearable pain and vision impairments that followed their procedures.
The physical pain was often accompanied by the psychological regret of having opted for a roughly $4,000 elective procedure that, if only they had stuck with glasses or contacts, wouldn't have been needed.
Starr said in Facebook posts that she had undergone a newer Lasik-like surgery known as SMILE, or small incision lenticule extraction. That procedure uses a different laser and eye-reshaping technique. SMILE was approved in 2016 by the Food and Drug Administration and was performed last year for the first time in Michigan.
SMILE procedures are "fundamentally the same" as Lasik and both are very safe, according to eye surgeon Dr. John Vukich, chairman of the Refractive Surgery Clinical Committee for the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery.
“Lasik is the most common elective surgical procedure in the world," said Vukich, who is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and has personally undergone Lasik. “It is a procedure that has enhanced the lives of many many people, but like in any surgery, there is never a zero risk."
A detailed New York Times story this year about the potential dangers of laser eye surgery highlighted the Lasik-related suicide of a 27-year-old military veteran as well as the sufferings of a Cleveland kindergarten teacher who needed a pain pump implanted in her abdomen for her constant eye pain and a Houston man who said he is "almost suicidal" because it feels like there is hot grease in his eyes 24/7.
Paula Cofer, who operates the Lasik complications website and runs a support group on Facebook for Lasik complications sufferers, told the Free Press in a phone interview Monday that since the first media reports of Starr's passing, her support group has been contacted by friends or relatives of four Lasik-related suicide victims.
"What they’re not telling you is there are complications to this surgery," said Cofer, 60, who lives near Tampa, and who has had severe complications from a 2000 Lasik surgery. “If you were to inform patients of everything I personally believe they should be informed of, nobody would have the surgery."
She said the worst possible side effects — albeit rare — can be incredibly painful and ruin people's lives. Some complications may only emerge years after surgery because structures in the eyes were permanently weakened by the laser resurfacing.
“The typical (complaints) are chronic dry eye, eye pain, horrible night vision — people just get depressed," said Cofer, adding, “and you’re dealing with a surgeon who is telling you, 'Oh, you’re a success. Your vision is now 20/20' " despite being in pain.
A study published last year that involved 574 participants and the FDA, the National Eye Institute and the Department of Defense found that less than 1 percent of the individuals reported difficulties performing their usual activities following Lasik surgery.
However, up to 46 percent of the participants who had no visual symptoms before surgery began having some visual symptom three months after surgery. And up to 28 percent of the participants who didn't have dry eyes before Lasik reported dry eye symptoms at three months post-surgery.
Still, more than 95 percent of all the participants were satisfied with their vision following Lasik.
Vukich, the eye surgeon, said that dry eyes is indeed a common side effect for some Lasik patients. However, those symptom almost always resolve after three months, he said.
Overall, significantly less than 1 percent of all Lasik patients will report bad experiences, he said.
“There have been 7,000 clinical studies published in peer-reviewed journals and the patient-reported satisfaction rate is 96 percent or greater," Vukich said.
He added, “Literally millions of people's lives are enhanced. It is so safe that when something does happen, it causes a lot of attention."
Contact JC Reindl: 313-222-6631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JCReindl.