Imagine this: You've worn glasses all your life. Then you visit an eye doctor for a painless 40-second operation, recuperate at home for a few days, and suddenly -- miraculously -- you can see perfectly.
This scenario is edging toward reality at Detroit's Sinai Hospital and dozens of other sites nationwide, all part of a five-year study to determine whether laser surgery could help an estimated 60 million nearsighted Americans.
Five people already are singing the praises of the experimental laser procedure called photo-refractive keratectomy, or PRK.
Michael Glaz, 32, had worn glasses since fifth grade. Not anymore. The laser procedure, which is done one eye at a time, has given him almost perfect 20/20 vision in his left eye. Now he gets by with a single contact lens in the other eye, planning for the day when he can have vision in his right eye restored.
Mr. Glaz was part of Sinai's pilot study, paid for by the hospital. Following TV reports on the study last month, "We had 85,000 calls in two days," says hospital spokesman Karen Hryciuk.
"Unfortunately, the television stations made a serious error," says Ms. Hryciuk. "They said we were looking for more volunteers and it was all going to be free."
Not so. Sinai must charge future study participants $2,000 for each operation, roughly the same as the other study sites. If approved for the general public, the procedure probably will cost about $4,000 to correct the vision in two eyes.
The Food and Drug Administration may decide as early as 1993 whether this method of vaporizing the cornea into a new shape without heat is safe and effective for treating moderate nearsightedness, or myopia.
If approved, the laser procedure could have tremendous appeal. Roughly one-fourth of the world's population is nearsighted. Myopia develops when the eye's main focusing structure, the cornea, a thin disk of clear tissue on the front of the eye, grows into a shape too curved to focus incoming light on the back of the eye, the retina.
"The laser operation flattens the cornea, so the light is focused exactly on the retina," says ophthalmologist Dr. Alan Spigelman, who's working on the study.