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RUTLEDGE: When eye surgery by an optometrist goes wrong – my story

I want to share my eye surgery story because it should never have happened. It was preventable and I am now living with the consequences of eye surgery by an optician.

Why should New Hampshire residents care about my story? Lawmakers are currently considering Senate Bill 440, a law eerily similar to a law passed years ago in my home state of Oklahoma that allows optometrists to perform eye surgery in and around the eye.

My name is Vicki Rutledge. I'm from Hugo, Oklahoma, a small rural town about a three hour drive from Oklahoma City. I am also a member of the Choctaw Nation, the third largest Native American nation in the United States with nearly 212,000 tribal members and more than 12,000 employees.

I was under the care of a private ophthalmologist and had successful cataract surgery on my right eye in 2016. Two years later, I developed a cataract in my left eye as well as a slight opacification of the posterior capsule, a cloudy film behind the lens implant in my right eye. Because of the cost of surgery, I went to Indian Health Service in Durant, Oklahoma in 2018.

A common treatment for my condition is laser eye surgery called YAG capsulotomy, which removes the cloudy film. Unlike ophthalmologists, optometrists are not doctors or trained surgeons and are not allowed to perform this surgery in most states – including all of New England – but not in Oklahoma. This is one of the surgeries among many others that New Hampshire optometrists would be authorized to perform if SB 440 goes into effect.

At my exam, my right eye had 20/20 vision, as noted by the optometrist who performed a YAG capsulotomy on that eye that same day. During the surgery, I sensed from the optometrist's body language and reactions that things were not going well, but didn't say anything as my optometrist was a “doctor” with almost 25 years of experience. I trusted her to perform the surgery, which was described as a quick in-office procedure.

I went home with an eye patch, which is out of character, and the next day when I removed the eye patch as instructed, I saw a large black area in the middle of my vision. I went to the same optometrist again and was told that I needed to see a retina specialist who diagnosed damage to the macula, the center of my retina. I was told my condition was untreatable and permanent.

My vision in the right eye was now 20/500 as it was 20/20 days ago, and my central vision in that eye is permanently gone.

I then had cataract surgery on my left eye and was fine for four months until, unfortunately, in addition to the permanent loss of vision in my right eye, I also suffered a retinal detachment in my left eye. I had surgery to repair the retinal detachment, but unfortunately I now have 20/400 vision in my left eye, so I am legally blind in both eyes.

I understand and consider the loss of vision in my left eye to be an unavoidable complication and I have accepted that. However, the permanent damage to my right side should never have occurred.

I traveled from Oklahoma and testified against Senate Bill 440 because I felt it was important to share my story with the House Committee on Executive Departments and Administration, which is currently considering the bill. I would like to thank the committee members for taking the time to listen to my story and I hope it has helped to highlight the seriousness of allowing optometrists to perform eye surgery. The optician told me that the laser surgery would be easy, quick and painless. Instead, my life changed forever.

I just hope that my story can raise awareness and be a real-life example of an optometrist's eye surgery gone horribly wrong and that only ophthalmologists should perform eye surgeries. I would like to believe that something will come out of my unfortunate story – that the New Hampshire Legislature will not make the mistake that was made in Oklahoma, but will instead choose to protect patients in New Hampshire while they still can, and with Vote “No” to SB 440.

Anna Harden

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