Detroit meteorologist Jessica Starr's death by suicide puts focus on Lasik safety
On average, there are more than 128 suicides per day in the United States, attempted by people with and without known mental health conditions. USA TODAY
DETROIT – A month before taking her own life Dec. 12, Jessica Starr, a meteorologist for a Detroit TV station, shared that she was still struggling with complications such as dry eyes and blurred vision from her Lasik-type eye surgery in October.
"I do still need all the prayers and the well-wishes because it’s a hard go," Starr, 35, the Fox 2 Detroit (WJBK-TV) meteorologist and mother of two young children, said in a video on her public Facebook page.
The role that those complications played in Starr's death by suicide – if any – remains unclear, but her comments spawned nationwide headlines after her death and new attention to potential dangers of the popular eyesight procedure that has been available since the 1990s and is widely perceived as safe.
News reports and websites such as Lasikcomplications.com have cited nearly a dozen instances of Lasik patients who killed themselves because of the unbearable pain and vision impairments that followed their procedures.
The physical pain was often accompanied by the psychological regret of having opted for a roughly $4,000 elective procedure that, if only they had stuck with glasses or contacts, wouldn't have been needed.
Starr said in Facebook posts that she had undergone a newer Lasik-like surgery known as SMILE, or small incision lenticule extraction. That procedure uses a different laser and eye-reshaping technique. SMILE was approved in 2016 by the Food and Drug Administration and was performed last year for the first time in Michigan.
SMILE procedures are "fundamentally the same" as Lasik and both are very safe, said eye surgeon Dr. John Vukich, chairman of the Refractive Surgery Clinical Committee for the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery.
“Lasik is the most common elective surgical procedure in the world," said Vukich, who is based in Madison, Wisconsin, and has personally undergone Lasik. “It is a procedure that has enhanced the lives of many, many people, but like in any surgery, there is never a zero risk."
A detailed New York Times story this year about the potential dangers of laser eye surgery highlighted the Lasik-related death by suicide of a 27-year-old military veteran as well as the sufferings of a Cleveland kindergarten teacher who needed a pain pump implanted in her abdomen for her constant eye pain and a Houston man who said he is "almost suicidal" because it feels like there is hot grease in his eyes 24/7.
Paula Cofer, who operates the Lasik complications website and runs a support group on Facebook for Lasik complications sufferers, said in a phone interview Monday that since the first media reports of Starr's passing, her support group has been contacted by friends or relatives of four Lasik-related death by suicide victims.
"What they’re not telling you is there are complications to this surgery," said Cofer, 60, who lives near Tampa, Florida, and who has had severe complications from a 2000 Lasik surgery. “If you were to inform patients of everything I personally believe they should be informed of, nobody would have the surgery."
She said the worst possible side effects – albeit rare – can be incredibly painful and ruin people's lives. Some complications may only emerge years after surgery because structures in the eyes were permanently weakened by the laser resurfacing.
“The typical (complaints) are chronic dry eye, eye pain, horrible night vision – people just get depressed," Cofer said, adding. “And you’re dealing with a surgeon who is telling you, 'Oh, you’re a success. Your vision is now 20/20' " despite being in pain.
A study published last year that involved 574 participants and the FDA, the National Eye Institute and the Department of Defense found that less than 1 percent of the individuals reported difficulties performing their usual activities after Lasik surgery.
However, up to 46 percent of the participants who had no visual symptoms before surgery began having some visual symptom three months after surgery. And up to 28 percent of the participants who didn't have dry eyes before Lasik reported dry eye symptoms at three months post-surgery.
Nov. 28: Stepping back from the edge
Still, more than 95 percent of all the participants were satisfied with their vision after Lasik.
Vukich, the eye surgeon, said dry eyes are indeed a common side effect for some Lasik patients. However, those symptoms almost always resolve after three months, he said.
Overall, significantly less than 1 percent of all Lasik patients will report bad experiences, he said.
“There have been 7,000 clinical studies published in peer-reviewed journals and the patient-reported satisfaction rate is 96 percent or greater," Vukich said.
He added, “Literally millions of people's lives are enhanced. It is so safe that when something does happen, it causes a lot of attention."
How to get help
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255 to speak to a counselor if you're in a crisis.
Among the warning signs of suicide are: talking about suicide, expressions of hopelessness, personality changes, depression or giving away possessions. To learn more, go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Follow JC Reindl on Twitter: @JCReindl