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Damaging Eye Surgery Brings $4M

May 10, 2002 | The Arizona Daily Star

A former airline pilot who lost his job after undergoing LASIK eye surgery at a UA clinic was awarded a record $4 million in a unanimous jury verdict Thursday.

It is the largest award ever given in this country for damage done by the extremely popular, elective surgery to correct common vision problems.

The amount - more than double the previous LASIK damage record - was given to Steve Post, 35, of Sierra Vista. He was grounded by United Airlines a year ago, after LASIK surgery destroyed his night vision, leaving him unfit to fly for any major commercial airline.

Post had flown for United since 1991 and had risen to the rank of captain of the 737 jet about 10 years ahead of most pilots.

His surgery was performed in May 2000 at The LASIK Center in Tucson, affiliated with the University of Arizona, to correct nearsightedness and allow him to function without glasses or contacts.

"The bottom line is that no matter what the amount of the money, my career basically is gone and no jury award will bring it back," Post said shortly after yesterday's verdict in Pima County Superior Court.

"So I think this is a good point for me to go on with the rest of my life. No matter how small or large the award, I was just happy to have the jury validate what I did accomplish in my career, and that what happened to end it was not right."

After coming into widespread use by the late '90s, LASIK surgery - technically known as Laser-Assisted In-Situ Keratomileusis - has exploded in popularity, making it the most common elective surgery in the United States, surpassing even high-demand cosmetic surgery such as breast implants and fat suction.

About half of all Americans suffer the vision problems - nearsightedness and farsightedness - that LASIK can correct, enabling people to chuck their glasses and other vision aids (news - web sites). That's why nearly 2 million are expected to demand it this year.

An elective procedure - not considered "medically necessary" - LASIK is not covered by insurance, so patients pay out-of-pocket for it, at about $1,000 to $2,000 an eye. LASIK requires only 10 to 15 minutes of a surgeon's time, and has developed into a major money-maker for doctors and clinics, triggering intense competition for a high volume of patients.

Those high-profit dynamics are blamed by critics for a creeping number of bad outcomes - up to 5 percent of all patients - and about 200 LASIK-related lawsuits now working their way through U.S. courts.

Post is typical of many LASIK patients who suffer damage not because the surgery itself was botched, but because they were improperly screened and accepted as candidates, according to testimony in the case.

Post's attorneys - Robert Beal, Ted Schmidt and Michael Redhair - argued that the UA's LASIK team failed to accurately measure the size of his pupils in dim light. Patients with pupils that are especially large under those conditions are considered poor candidates for LASIK, because they often emerge from the surgery with damaged night vision, as Post did.

"I think the jury was very definitely trying to send a message that it's important for LASIK centers to properly train and supervise those who are doing the preoperative screening," said Schmidt.

"That's the single most important area where problems can be prevented."

Schmidt acknowledged that the surgery itself, done by UA chief of ophthalmology Dr. Robert Snyder, was "superb."

"The problem is, they should have never done it in the first place on Steve - he was not a proper candidate. And because of his occupation - which required him to fly planes at night - he should have had a very specialized screening. But they didn't even consider that," he said.

Attorneys for the defendants - the UA LASIK team and University Physicians Inc., the nonprofit doctors group at the UA College of Medicine - have not decided if they will appeal.

"Of course, we're disappointed with this verdict," said Jeff Campbell, who represented University Physicians. "I think UPI met the standard of care for this procedure in this region.

"And Steve Post was aware of the risks involved in LASIK, the possible outcomes were known to him and he elected to go ahead with it. Yes, we are disappointed, but this kind of thing can happen with a jury verdict."

During the trial, which began April 23, the eye surgeon, Snyder, argued that the preoperative pupil measurement was not related to the postoperative night vision damage, Campbell said.

"What happened was due to spherical aberrations in the eyes, that can be increased by the LASIK procedure," he said. "Every patient has some degree of aberration, but there is no way to know in advance how significantly it will be increased by LASIK. That differs in every patient."

Campbell described Snyder as a "very conservative" LASIK surgeon, who will not operate on a patient whose pupils are larger than the area to be ablated by the laser.

The $4 million awarded to Post was based on losing his high-paying career at such a young age and on the possible cost of future surgery to correct his vision damage, said his attorneys. Such surgery has not yet been approved in the United States and might not be available for three to five years.

"To be honest, the thought of undergoing another eye surgery doesn't seem like a very good idea to me right now," Post said.

In the past year, Post has radically changed his life - volunteering to work with troubled teens at the Cochise County Children's Center, where he is now employed as a behavioral health worker. He also volunteers as a court-appointed special advocate for youth and has trained his dogs to provide pet therapy for nursing home patients.

He said he plans to use some of his award to improve conditions and programs for neglected children in Southern Arizona.

Before yesterday's Tucson jury verdict, the largest award ever made to a LASIK patient was $1.7 million, to a 38-year-old Kentucky woman in November, after four flawed LASIK surgeries forced her to undergo a corneal transplant to restore vision in one eye.

The year before, a Buffalo, N.Y., man was awarded $1.2 million after his eye was lacerated by the laser, leaving him nearly blind without corrective lenses.

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