Beauty editor Madeleine Spencer’s short-sightedness had blighted her entire life. But with ICL surgery, her eyes were fixed in an instant. Here’s how it works

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I wake up the morning after my surgery, open my eyes, and I can see. Not just the blurry shapes to which I’d become accustomed over the years – I mean EVERYTHING. The hairline crack on the ceiling I’ve been meaning to fix. The honeycomb print of the dressing gown hanging on the back of the door. The particles of dust dancing in the light that streams through a crack in the curtain.

Habit dictates that I reach for my glasses – then I remember. I don’t wear glasses anymore. Or contact lenses. My eyes work, without any apparatus. I wish I could say I felt emotional at this stage, that it felt like a moment of biblical proportions but I just felt something akin to disbelief. I couldn’t reconcile my mind to the fact that this perfect vision was the birthright of so many, and suddenly, in the space of a very short operation, I was cured of my extreme myopia.

Shortsightedness had blighted my life since my early teens. I hated wearing glasses – I felt encumbered and slowed down by their presence. I hated the weight on my nose, the tugging behind my ears. I didn’t feel confident to run or play tennis in them, and swimming underwater was out of the question.

My myopia was never far from my thoughts. I was 13 when Titanic came out and throughout the movie I was fixated on the fact that Jack and Rose both must’ve had excellent eyesight. They could actually see one another across decks and, when the ship was sinking, neither of them seemed in a flap about grabbing their glasses. I was hugely aware that had I tried to either decide if a boy more than two metres away was attractive or navigate a dark ocean without my specs, I’d have been in trouble.

This constant low-level whirr of worry about my eyesight continued over the ensuing 20 years. I started wearing contact lenses in my twenties and they were initially a godsend but my eyes soon started to say no. I could only wear them for a four-hour window before my eyes became red and itchy, so I started to strategise my day around them. Would it be better to wear glasses for lunch or for dinner? Should I wear my lenses in the spa’s steam room (they might sting) or my glasses (they might fog up and I might fall over)? Post-surgery, these thought patterns were silenced - the benefits of being able to see properly again were as much psychological as physical.

It wasn’t a decision I took lightly. I was desperately nervous about having the surgery and what the process might entail, so I diligently did my research. Here’s what I found out:

What is an ICL implant?

ICL is an Implantable Collamer Lens, essentially a permanent biocompatible contact lens placed into the eye to correct vision. ICLs can correct myopia (short sightedness - trouble seeing in the distance) or hyperopia (long sightedness – trouble seeing up close); with or without astigmatism (when your eye is more rugby ball-shaped than football-shaped), so could be ideal if, like me, you have poor eyesight due to myopia and astigmatism, as it sorts both in one whammy.

My contact lenses were making my eyes feel unbearably dry, so my optician referred me the Western Eye Hospital in London for tests. There I met the Lens and Corneal surgeon Ali Mearza, who told me my corneas were on the thin side and confirmed the dryness of my eyes. This meant I wasn’t the best candidate for laser surgery, as I didn’t have any thickness of lens to lose. Plus the laser might’ve exacerbated the dryness problem. When he proposed that ICL might be a good fit and told me more about it, I was really reassured by the fact that the ICL can be removed should it need to be, returning the eye to its natural state.

I booked a consultation the next day to see him at his clinic, OCL Vision, and, when I was told that the tests run confirmed Mr Mearza’s hunch that my eyes would tolerate ICL well, I booked directly in for surgery a month later.

How long does an ICL last?

It’s a long-term solution. “It should last all the way until another problem develops, eg a cataract, which typically occurs between the ages of 60 and 80,” says Mr Mearza. At that point, the ICL can be safely removed allowing the necessary vision surgery to take place.

What is the difference between ICL surgery and LASIK/LASEK?

The difference lies in the approach to correcting the patient’s degree of short or long sightedness. Lasers such as LASEK and LASIK remove tissue permanently to achieve results by reshaping the cornea (the outer layers of the eye), while the addition of the ICL lens acts like a permanent contact lens, inserted through a tiny, self-healing incision. Additionally, while ICL surgery is removable, once the corneal tissue is reduced in thickness by a laser during LASEK/LASIK, the tissue doesn’t regenerate, and the eye’s structure is irreversibly changed.

In terms of the risks, Mr Mearza says, “The risks with either procedure of anything serious is less than 1 per cent. With ICL, we have to make an entry site to enter the eye so as to insert the lens, and with laser, we work on the cornea and do not enter the eye.”

ICL worked out as more expensive – the laser options I looked into came in at around £4-£5k, while ICL was £7,000.

Is ICL surgery painful?

Fretting about this kept me up at night in the week prior to my surgery, but I was pleasantly surprised. Once the local anaesthetic drops to numb the eye were administered, and the sedation I’d requested kicked in for my anxiety, I felt very relaxed once the surgery started and truly felt nothing bar a slight sensation of pressure.

Firstly, you lie down in the prep room then you are wheeled into the sterilized surgical area. Your eyes are propped open for the surgery, something I had endlessly agonized over beforehand, but it was needless as I didn’t even feel it. I had been worried that I’d need to blink or have a break but the team were so efficient. Once I was lying down, the time passed really quickly (I think I was in there in total for around 15 minutes). During the surgery my visual field was black so I couldn't see anything apart from three overhead lights - no scary scalpels coming towards me. I'm not entirely sure how I could 'see' but also wasn't seeing anything but it means you're blissfully unaware of anything as it's all taking place. When I left, I remember thinking I’d choose it over a bikini wax, any day. Genuinely – the absolute worst bit was the nerves beforehand.

Can you see straight after ICL?

Yes, you can! It was extraordinary. Within 30 minutes of going in and coming out the operating theatre, my eyesight was restored to its former glory. Granted, they were a little tender, and slightly sensitive towards light – but I was amazed at how minimal the side effects were.

My recovery was also completely pain-free. I took a taxi home with sunglasses on to help shield my eyes from dust and sun, accompanied by my sister. I was given eye drops to help heal the inflammation and a local antibiotic, which I had to apply a few times a day (handily OCL Vision had developed an app with notifications to remind patients of when to administer said drops). I didn’t need painkillers at all because there was no sensation other than the slight tenderness and the only other bit of post-care admin was wearing shields taped over my eyes for five nights. 

A few days on, and I was still marvelling at how I could see everything perfectly. My eyes were, however, a bit tired and I saw halos if I looked at lights. These have now diminished a lot but on occasion at night they are still present. Mr Mearza has assured me that that’s normal and that, for some people, the halos take a little longer to go away entirely.

I was allowed to bath straight away but couldn’t stand under the shower stream for a week, so I washed my hair in the bath to ensure I didn’t get water in my eyes. When cleansing my face, I would just gently wipe some cleanser close to my eye. After around a week, I put on a little bit of eyeshadow and would gently wipe it away at night using the same method.

How much does ICL surgery cost?

At OCL Vision where I had my ICL implants, it costs in the region of £7000 - though they offer plans to pay it off monthly, with a few different options to manage the costs.

Is ICL surgery available on the NHS?

In general, no. Some NHS Trusts do allow it under specific circumstances, but not routinely in order to allow the patient to stop wearing lenses or glasses.

What’s the ICL surgery age limit?

It’s approved for use in anyone between 21-60 who has had a stable prescription for six months or longer.

6 months later…

I’ve forgotten I ever wore glasses or contact lenses. That might sound mad, but I have been astonished at how quickly I’ve adjusted. I recently went on a long haul flight, and it was only while packing cosmetics that I remembered I’d previously carried a bag for my contact lenses, prescription sunglasses, and spare pair of glasses – and what a nuisance wearing glasses on the flight had been, as they steamed up and became smeared.

I’m paying the cost off monthly, and while it’s a big hit for my finances (especially given the cost of living crisis), I genuinely think it’s the best money I’ve ever spent, and would do it again in a heartbeat. Also, my glasses and lenses weren’t exactly cheap, so it’ll level out over time. If anything, I wish I had done it a few years earlier.