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

June 13, 1999

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."

COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE "I'm definitely seeing better," says the 40-year-old Boggs, now only 48 hits shy of 3,000. "It's amazing."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)