The Day – Norwich woman plans to recover from historic operation

Groton — For Laurie Watson, things are looking up.

Unhappy with the outcome of cataract surgery in her right eye in March 2021, the 70-year-old woman from Norwich sought a second opinion, opting to ‘take a chance’, as she put it, about Dr. Anthony Romania, an ophthalmologist who has been practicing in the region since 2000.

It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

Romania recently became the first – and still is the only – doctor in the state certified to implant an artificial iris in a patient’s eye, a procedure approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2018 and covered by Medicare. since January 2020. After successful cataract surgery on Watson’s good left eye last August, Romania operated on his right eye almost two months ago, removing the damaged iris and inserting a prosthesis over measure instead.

Romania and Watson, interviewed together last week at the Romania Eye Center at 82 Plaza Court, said the outpatient surgery at Pequot Health Center, 52 Hazelnut Hill Road, took 45 minutes.

Before operating, Romania numbed Watson’s eye with drops. The drugs that relaxed her were given to her intravenously. Then, looking through a microscope, Romania made a 2-millimeter incision in the surface of Watson’s eye, removed the scar tissue, and injected the bent flexible silicone implant, positioning it in a sulcus, or furrow, where it is self-sealed.

“No bandages, no stitches,” Romania said.

After performing a sham version of the procedure for two months before the real thing, Pequot Health’s surgical team performed flawlessly, Romania said, crediting Shauna Nocery, Kim Walsh, Fanny Desrosier, Mechelle Barber, Ashley Wildes, Michele Drayton and Scott Long.

Watson said vision in his right eye was better the day after surgery on March 25 and has improved steadily since then.

“It’s a weird thing, it just keeps getting better,” she said. “Before the operation, everything was blurry. It was like looking through a shower curtain with water droplets on it. … My pupil was as wide open as possible.”

She had taken to wearing dark glasses.

“Every time I go back to see Dr. Romania, I get better on the eye chart,” she said. “I have to move my head to be able to read, but I can get out. My depth perception has improved a lot.”

“I just wanted to see”

Watson is an avid reader, as is her husband, Robert Smith, who works at the UConn Bookstore in Storrs. At some point, she says, she’ll try driving again.

“When she is fully recovered, she will have 20/40 vision (in her right eye) without glasses,” Romania said.

While a natural iris – the ring of muscle fibers that give the eye its color – contracts and expands, changing the size of the pupil and controlling the amount of light that reaches the eye’s lens, the Watson’s artificial iris permanently fixes the pupil size at an optimal ‘setting’. Compared to vision with a damaged iris, the artificial iris “improves contrast sensitivity, reduces glare and light sensitivity, and eliminates transillumination defects,” according to its US distributor, VEO Ophthalmics.

Cosmetically, it’s also an improvement, though Watson said she wasn’t too concerned about that.

“I wouldn’t care if (the artificial iris) were to be green,” said blue-eyed Watson, whose hand-painted implant was designed to perfectly match the look of her natural iris. left eye. “I just wanted to see. I garden and I had so much trouble with depth perception. … In bright light, I couldn’t make out what I was doing. I was pulling plants instead of weeds.

“There are rumors that it’s a cosmetic thing, but it’s for people with real issues,” she said of the implant surgery. “It’s not something you would do just to change your eye color.”

Few people could afford it

A native of New Jersey, Romania, 66, earned his bachelor’s degree from Boston University and his medical degree from Northwestern. After completing a residency at the Cleveland Clinic, he spent a decade in private practice in Arizona before returning to the East Coast. He practiced solo in New London County for 22 years, first in New London and then in Groton, and taught at Yale University for 17 years. He is affiliated with Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London.

Romania said it started following developments in the artificial iris in 2010. At that time, the implants, which were developed by HumanOptics in Germany, had only been approved in the United States on a case-by-case basis. under a “compassionate FDA” from the FDA. use “.

“I knew they were a big improvement over what was available,” Romania said of the implants. “There weren’t a lot of options before. You had to suture the muscles together, which never works well and not aesthetically. … I went to medical conferences, I stayed up to date, and I waited for it to happen to this country.”

In 2018, the FDA granted VEO Ophthalmics, an Ohio-based company, permission to implant the devices in adults and children whose irises were missing or damaged due to a congenital condition called aniridia. or traumatic eye injury.

Romania said most candidates for an artificial iris implant have suffered an injury while playing sports or in a car accident, or, as in Watson’s case, due to surgical complications.

Until 2020, when the US Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services approved VEO Ophthalmics’ artificial iris for payment status, few people could afford it, Romania said. The implant itself can cost between $8,000 and $9,000.

And, with Medicare approving reimbursement on the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic, the availability of implant surgery may have gone largely unnoticed. Approved for anyone over the age of 3, it’s available to virtually anyone who needs it.

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