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UPMC East handles its first permanent contact lens surgery

| Wednesday, May 7, 2014, 7:06 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | For the Times Express
Jessica Hua of Squirrel Hill recently had permanent contact lenses surgically attached at UPMC East.

When she was in middle school, Jessica Hua resolved that she would “get her eyes fixed one day.”

Like many near-sighted individuals, Hua, 27, wasn't a candidate for laser vision correction, a procedure that shapes the cornea to improve vision.

This year, she discovered an alternative option. And it was available through UPMC East hospital in Monroeville.

Implantable Collamer lens surgery, also known as ICL, attaches a gel-like contact lens into the patient's eye to permanently correct vision. The contact lens is made of collagen and polymer.

Hua is one of the first to undergo the procedure through UPMC.

Dr. Deepinder Dhaliwal, director of cornea and refractive surgery services at the UPMC Eye Center, has performed the surgery on three patients, including Hua.

“It's been completely life-changing,” Hua said about the surgery. “There was always the worry of, if I lose my contact, what am I going to do? It was a safety issue and a question of how productive can you be if you have to worry.”

Hua, who received her doctorate in ecology and evolution from the University of Pittsburgh, spends plenty of time in swamps and ponds for research projects.

The Squirrel Hill resident said she worried about losing her contact lenses if she was in the middle of data collection. She worried that she would lose a contact lens while driving, as she does now, between Pittsburgh and Purdue University in Indiana, where she continues research work.

“I was just like, ‘Oh, gosh, I will always have bad vision. I will always have these worries,' ” she said.

Postsurgery, she said, her eyesight is much improved.

“It's light-years from when I had to wear glasses,” she said. “And with contacts, sometimes, they move around. No matter where my eyes move or how quickly I move my eyes, now, I can see.”

Also, Hua said, at the end of a long day, her eyes don't dry out, blurring her vision, as they did when she wore traditional contact lenses.

The outpatient surgery, which is not currently covered by insurance, costs about $7,500, including pretesting, surgery on both eyes and a year of follow-up care, according to Stephanie Stanley, a UPMC spokeswoman.

Dhaliwal sees ICL surgery as something that will catch on.

“There are options for patients that are severely near-sighted,” she said. “It's important for patients to know all of their options. They should investigate and really be evaluated by doctors that offer all of these procedures.”

Hua did her homework. Before consulting with Dhaliwal at UPMC's Eye and Ear Institute in Pittsburgh, she talked to relatives in California who had the procedure done.

Though she was a little apprehensive, after the 30-minute procedure, Hua was relieved.

“It wasn't what I was expecting. It was very quick,” she said. “I could see immediately.”

Julie Martin is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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