Dr. Beck Weathers is probably one of the best known mountain-climbing LASIK patients of all times. The thing is, he never had LASIK surgery.
For those of you who are not familiar with Dr. Weathers’ story, let’s go back to the second half of the 1990s. Weathers, a Dallas, Texas pathologist, was an experienced mountain climber with six of the world’s seven highest peaks under his belt. With careful planning, consideration and more training, an attempt at the highest peak in the world – 29,096 feet above sea level – was an achievable goal.
Climbing Mount Everest was relatively uneventful for Weathers and his fellow mountaineers until they reached Base Camp 4 in May of 1996. Within a few days of reaching Base Camp 4, and while hiking to the summit, Weathers began to lose his sight. Not only was his vision blurry, but he had additional difficulty seeing at night. As he progressed in altitude, his vision decreased. He decided not to ascend to the summit of Everest. In addition, there was a large, powerful storm bearing down hard and fast.
In a series of missteps and misjudgments, five people in Weathers’ climbing party died. Weathers was left for dead, but, somehow through his blindness, managed to stumble down the mountain to Base Camp 4 and survived. He lost his right arm from his mid-forearm down, his fingers and thumb from his right hand, parts of both feet and most of his nose. He also experienced UV burns across his eyes. His nose has since been reconstructed. His eyesight returned after reaching lower altitudes.
Initially reported in mass media and through Jon Krakauer’s best selling 1996 book (and 1997 film) Into Thin Air, Weathers and his fellow adventurers’ saga has been told and retold over the past few years. Weathers himself tells his story in the 2001 publication Left For Dead. All told, 1996 marked the highest number of deaths on Mount Everest ever in recorded history.
While not discounting the courage and skill it took to survive in these conditions, what Weathers had done was to fail to disclose his eye surgery to his expedition leaders prior to setting out. In addition, depending on which sources you use, the surgery was relatively recent, reportedly done anywhere from two years to one week prior to him leaving for Nepal.
Weathers had undergone Radial Keratotomy (RK), an earlier form of refractive surgery that does not use lasers. LASIK surgery reshapes the cornea with cool ultraviolet light, using a microscopically precise computer-aided Excimer laser to sculpt away aberrations. Radial keratotomy, on the other hand, is done manually with a diamond blade. In RK, multiple incisions are made across the surface of the cornea, radiating out like the spokes on a bicycle wheel, and greater nearsightedness requires more incisions. Combine the extreme decrease in air pressure with deep incisions that may not be fully healed, and the body will compensate at the point of least resistance. The corneal incisions opened and distorted Dr. Weathers’ vision.
To say that the curious case of Dr. Beck Weathers is extreme would be an understatement. And climbing Mount Everest? Only about 3,000 people have done so since Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first did it in 1953 (5,000 people by some accounts). But, in this current era of extreme sports and cutting-edge advancements in laser technologies, what are the boundaries of LASIK in the 21st century?
Even people who have not had LASIK and similar laser vision correction procedures can occasionally experience visual complications at high altitudes. Those who have had bladeless LASIK, custom wavefront LASIK, PRK, epi-LASIK and similar cornea surgeries may be at a slightly higher risk, but many patients have no problems whatsoever. What can you expect if you enjoy mountain climbing, skiing or similar sports but want to have LASIK surgery?
Part II will discuss the myths and realities regarding LASIK and mountain climbing. Come back to read more!
If you’re a mountain climber, extreme skier, or have questions about other recreational sports and LASIK surgery, contact us today for an appointment. Dr. Ilan Cohen is an expert in cornea and refractive surgery in New York and New Jersey. He would be happy to answer your questions about LASIK surgery and the many laser vision correction options available today to suit your lifestyle.