Technology moves eye surgery into 21st century

Technology has opened the doors for almost everyone in need of medical care. On Wednesday, technology helped a man who otherwise would have never been able to see regain sight.

Dr. Mark Helm, an ophthalmologist (eye doctor and surgeon) of the Helm Eye Center at The Memorial Hospital (TMH) in Craig, performed a cataract surgery unlike any other ever done in the region.

A cataract is a clouding of the normally clear lens of the eye. The lens focuses light rays on the retina at the back of the eye to produce a sharp image of what people see. When the lens becomes cloudy, the light rays cannot pass through easily, and the images become blurry.

The normal procedure of removing a cataract was done for the patient, Horizon's patient Francis Younger, 54, except for one thing he was sedated and sleeping. Normally, an ophthalmologist performs the surgery, called phaco emulsification, while the patient is awake, with the eye area under local anesthetic. Although patients may be able to see light and movement during the procedure, no pain occurs and patients do not have to worry about keeping the eye open.

Before the surgery, the patient and ophthalmologist decide if the surgery is necessary. The eye is measured to determine the proper power of the intraocular lens that will be placed in the eye during the surgery. The focusing power of the natural lens is restored by replacing it with the lens.

For Younger, the process was completed differently. Younger's colleagues could tell he was having trouble with sight. His depth perception was off and, according to Helm, this is a tell-tale sign of a cataract. Upon entering Helm's office, an accurate reading of his cataract could not be made due to Younger's inability to remain still.

"This is a new surgery to assist those who are unable to help themselves," Helm said. "It gives us an extra bit of flexibility."

With the new piece of equipment called a corneal topographer, Helm was able to get an accurate reading of the cataract while Younger was sleeping. This machine is a portable model and Helm performed the initial measurement and the cataract surgery all in less than two hours. Normally, the whole procedure will take about 30 minutes.

Finding the initial measurement was difficult for Helm as getting the right angle for the measurement proved somewhat cumbersome. Once that was done, the surgery went off without a hitch.

"We use the corneal topographer routinely," Helm said. "But we have never used it in this manner and since he can't look this way or that, it's a little difficult. We take measurements in the office for granted."

There are two wounds made to the eye during the surgery. Both are made along the lens of the eye and are microscopic. In this surgery, Helm made both small cuts along the right side of the right eye and was able to flush out the cataract with fluid in an extraction process. Once the cataract is gone, the eye is once again the normal color and the intraocular lens is intricately placed into the lens.

The first time Helm was able to look into the eye to see the cataract was Wednesday. Being able to see clearly through the eye depends on the clarity in the eye. "If I can't see in, he can't see out," Helms said.

With advancements in technology has come the ability for corrective surgery. A new procedure called LASIK (laser assisted in situ keratomileusis) has been developed as a refractive surgery for nearsightedness and farsightedness. The progress has helped cure cataracts, too.

"The technology that has been developed for refractive surgery is helping us with cataract surgery," Helm said. "We take care of everyone and we can and do go the extra mile."

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