Today, around 3:15 pm, Stephen Smith will open his eyes and see, without glasses.
But LASIK vision-correcting surgery means more to him than most people. Smith, who is quadriplegic, communicates with his eyes.
Smith, 39, lost his ability to walk and talk after he knocked his head against the pavement and suffered a brain injury when he was 19 years old. His mind still functions as it's supposed to – he can think and feel physically and emotionally – but he cannot tell his muscles to move or his mouth to speak.
After the accident, he communicated with the help of another person, blinking when they said or pointed to the right letter on a chart, slowly spelling each word he wanted to say.
About two years ago, he started using a computer device designed to track his eye movement and type each letter he focused on. For Smith, it worked sporadically. The lenses in his glasses are too thick, and frequent glares cause the device to malfunction.
“It'd work for awhile. After two or three minutes, it couldn't find his eyes anymore,” said Mary Coons, Smith's sister. “He'd get frustrated.”
She created a YouTube video to tell Smith's story and began contacting eye doctors about LASIK surgery. She reached out to Dr. Lance Kugler in August. The Omaha eye surgeon called Smith's problem unique. He hadn't encountered it before in his practice at Kugler Vision.
Kugler was so moved by Smith's story, he offered to do the $5,000 procedure pro bono.
“This seemed like a really great way to apply our technology to really improve somebody's quality of life,” he said. “Every time we do LASIK we do that in a smaller way.”
He tested Smith to make sure he qualified for the procedure. Though his prescription is high – he can't see the big “E” on an eye chart without glasses – it fell within the acceptable range.
“He can't see far, and he can't see close. I'm going to help him see far a whole lot better, but I'm going to focus on the computer distance because he has a very specific need,” Kugler said.
The blade-less procedure is scheduled for 3 p.m. today. Kugler will use a laser to cut a clear flap in the outer layer of the eye. He'll use another laser to reshape the cornea underneath the flap. He'll finish both eyes in less than 15 minutes.
Smith's vision will be 20/20 within 48 hours, though things might appear a little cloudy immediately following the procedure.
When the fog wears off, Smith will be able to use his computer without issue and communicate without help.
It will be much easier to talk with his sister, who lives in Atlanta.
“It's going to make the ability to communicate in real time very prolific for us. We have a very strong relationship, but what I'm excited about is he (won't have) to connect through somebody else to reach the rest of the world,” Coons said.
“It'll allow him to really, truly ensure his own voice is out there.”
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