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Eye Surgery At The Mall

Shoppers on their way to The Gap or Victoria's Secret stop dead in their tracks, emit squeals of disgust and display a rubbernecking kind of fascination with what they see.

But it's just the surgeons at Fair Oaks Mall in Fairfax, Va., performing laser surgery on a patient's eyes in a glass-walled operating room that essentially serves as the Visual Freedom Center's window display. On a large television display, passersby also can watch a clasp of the procedure.

"I think people have found it fascinating," says Dr. Robert Johnston, an ophthalmologist who started the center.

"They have stopped and watched and many have return in order to inquire further and pursue having their eyes corrected. The advantage to them is they can actually experience how brief and how well-tolerated this surgery really is," he says.

Since Johnson moved his office to the mall in February, his business has increased by 40 percent, he says. About 15 patients are treated each day.

Laser eye surgery is performed to correct nearsightedness and farsightedness. During the procedure, surgeons slice the cornea, peeling it back to expose the area beneath, which is then zapped with a laser.

The operation, which reshapes the cornea so that images properly hit the retina, is called laser in-situ keratomileusis, or LASIK. The center of a nearsighted person's cornea is pulsed with the laser to reduce the curvature.

In a farsighted person, the periphery of the cornea is pulsed to remove tissue and add curvature.

Through the glass behind Dr. Johnston, surgeons work on a patient.

Dr. Johnston says the surgery is not painful. A topical anesthesia is used on the eye, but the patient remains awake and alert during the operation.

About an hour later, the patient can go home, and normal vision returns about 12 hours later. More than 85 percent of patients who undergo this type of surgery have their vision corrected to 20/20, Dr. Johnston says.

Since the surgery is intended to be a permanent change when the eyes have stopped growing, the Food and Drug Administration does not allow anyone under 18 to have the surgery.

Laser eye surgery is performed by ophthalmologists across the country, although the Visual Freedom Center is believed to be the first center to be located in a shopping mall, said Jan Beiting, spokeswoman for the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery in Fairfax, Va.

"There's definitely a buzz about it among our members," she said.

The patients themselves don't mind being on display; in fact, many actually enjoy it, Dr. Johnston says.

"We have found that ptients are delighted with being able to have friends and family watch as they have their procedure done," Dr. Johnston says. "They sit up after the end of the operation and read the clock on the wall across the room for the first time sometimes in their adult life."

Patients can choose to close the operating room curtains and turn off the television, but only a few do so.

Tien Chau, 23, of Annandale, worked up the courage to have his eyes treated after watching his girlfriend, Thuy Nguyen, 23, have the operation the day before. Chau reasoned that doctors are less likely to butcher him with a crowd watching.

The surgery takes about 15 minutes and costs about $5,000 for both eyes.

The center's marketing strategy has been so successful that a second shop will open in a Columbia, Md., mall in September. Two more are in the works for the Chicago and Washington-Baltimore areas by the end of the year, said the center's marketing director Shannon Fredericks.

Although Dr. Johnston says there have been occasional operations that did not go as well as hoped, he says "our willingness to demonstrate this in the mall is convincing evidence to a lot of patients that the complication rate is low and we're confident in our results."

Should Starbucks watch out? Will it soon be replaced by a popular eye opener?

"My vision is a world without glasses," Dr. Johnston says. "It seems to me we can expand this to malls throughout the world."

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