A former pharmacist has told how laser eye surgery left him suffering from pain so horrific he felt suicidal.
Sohaib Ashraf underwent the surgery nine years ago and life has never been the same again.
The now 36-year-old dad-of-one had to give up his job as a pharmacist and lives in constant, excruciating pain.
For a long time doctors couldn’t work out what was wrong with him, but he was eventually diagnosed with recurrent corneal erosion syndrome, dry eye and neuropathic pain.
He says he’s spent tens of thousands of pounds towards treatments and medication in a bid to ease the suffering, but to little avail, reports Manchester Evening News.
Having worn glasses since childhood, Sohaib had always dreamed of having 20/20 vision and at the age of 26 he started thinking about laser eye surgery.
“I did a bit of research into the surgery and saved up a bit of money for the first time in my life,” he said. “And what better to spend your money on than something that would improve you?”
In 2013 he underwent the surgery at Manchester Royal Eye Hospital and apart from some slight discomfort afterwards everything seemed fine.
But just a few weeks later, Sohaib woke with an excruciating stabbing sensation in his eyes. He also had “halos” and glare – as though he was looking at the world through a “dirty car windscreen”.
Sohaib, who lives with his wife and young son in Preston, was working as a pharmacist at the time but his agony became so debilitating, he was forced to give up his job and a career he’d spent years studying towards.
“The pain was just unrelenting,” he said. “I was suicidal. I was forced to look for a new career where I could work around my eye pain. That was the most difficult thing I’ve done in my life. I had to study and find a new career while I was in so much pain.”
Nine years on, the terrible side effects remain. Sohaib still struggles with pain every day and says he’s now “just surviving”.
What particularly frustrates him is that he chose to do the operation.
“The worst thing is blaming yourself and realising that I did this to myself and I chose to do this,” he said. “I do more research when I go to buy a TV, looking at all the specs and using comparison websites. But with this – I suspended my judgement.”
Sohaib was treated with LASEK surgery, a procedure where a cutting laser is used to change the shape of the dome-shaped clear tissue at the front of the eye (cornea) to improve vision.
Once he began experiencing side-effects from the surgery, he visited his clinic month after month for help, but his doctor struggled to find the root of the cause – telling him he was suffering from dry eyes.
“This went on for years, me constantly going back to the doctor,” Sohaib added. “He was getting sick of me. He couldn’t see the cause of the pain. To him, I was wasting his time.”
Eventually, doctors diagnosed Sohaib with recurrent corneal erosion syndrome, which is when the cornea’s outermost layer of cells fail to attach to the underlying basement membrane. He was also diagnosed with dry eye and neuropathic pain – the latter is caused by damaged nerves.
Sohaib’s conditions see him wake up every hour to put drops in his eyes – meaning he hasn’t had a full night’s sleep in nine years.
Every year, around 100,000 people in the UK undergo refractive eye surgery, ranging at a cost of £1,200 to £2,700 per eye.
There are a number of different procedures, including the well-known surgery LASIK, where a flap is cut in the cornea and a deeper layer of the eyeball shaped. There is also LASEK, the type Sohaib had, which reshapes the eye’s surface.
One of the biggest laser eye surgery stories to hit headlines was in 2018 when US meteorologist Jessica Starr committed suicide after having LASIK. The 35-year-old took her own life just weeks before Christmas after struggling with side effects from the procedure.
The Fox 2 Detroit weather presenter was forced to take a month off work because of the pain and vision problems she was experiencing. At the time of her death, she had two young children aged five and three.
According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), where Sohaib previously worked, a haze effect is one of the most common complications seen across laser eye surgery patients. Across different types of treatment, 0-31% of eyes treated with PRK were affected, 0-25% of eyes treated with LASEK were affected and 0-2% of eyes treated with LASIK were affected.
Other problems included difficulty seeing in dim light and seeing ‘halos’ of light around things at night. The NHS says common side effects of laser eye surgery include mild and gritty discomfort and visual disturbances including glare from oncoming headlights when driving at night.
According to the United States’ National Library of Medicine, around 1 in 900 people were found to suffer from Neuropathic Corneal Pain, one of the most severe complications. The damaged nerves can cause sensations such as burning, stinging and eye ache.
But Sohaib says more people need to be warned about the possible side effects – and has made it his mission to properly inform those considering having the surgery. He helps run a Facebook group called LASIK Complications Support Group, which almost has 8,000 members.
“As a pharmacist, I had people come in saying things cause cancer. I would close my eyes and shake my head and say, ‘If these things were dangerous, the doctor would tell you about it,’” he said.
“These procedures been around for decades. The issue I have is if they’ve been around for 20 years, where is the long-term safety data? It’s not like there are a lack of patients, they just haven’t collected it because they don’t want to. It shows it’s not as safe as they claim.”
A spokesperson for Manchester Royal Eye Hospital, part of Manchester University NHS Foundation Trust said: “We understand Mr. Ashraf’s complaint was dealt with directly by the doctor who undertook this procedure on a private basis. Mr. Ashraf can still contact our dedicated Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) if he would like to raise any further concerns with the Trust.”