Dr. Emily Thomas didn’t intend to cry when she stepped out of the eye doctor’s chair after her surgery. But it was the first time in her 30 years she had seen a human face or anything else without Coke-bottle glasses or uncomfortable contact lenses.

“It was overwhelming,” said Thomas, an optometrist-turned-patient. “I was a wreck. I don’t have any memory of not having glasses or contacts. I can’t remember any time in my life I couldn’t see without correction.”

Her eyes had gone from a vision of about 20/400 to 20/20 because implantable contact lenses were placed in her eyes, said Dr. Lawrence Gans, medical director of SureVision Eye Centers.

During an office visit, the lenses are placed in the eye just behind the cornea and in front of the iris. The implantable contact lens is made from a synthetic biological material that makes it compatible with eye tissue, Gans said.

The lenses are rolled up, then injected into place. The lenses are roughly rectangular, which helps keep them in place. Moments later, the patient can see.

Once they’re in, they’re permanent, Gans said. But they can be removed if something goes wrong or if a new technology comes along.

Thomas practices in Springfield, Ill. She knew of Gans from having studied at the College of Optometry at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Thomas’ nearsightedness was about five times that of someone who could opt for Lasik surgery, she said. Lasik eye surgery removes material from the cornea to help the eye focus correctly, Thomas said. “But for my vision, that would have made my cornea too thin and so that wasn’t an option,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the only side effects were immediately after the surgery when she had an aura from her eyes being dilated.

“But I woke up the next morning and everything was perfect,” she said.

The implantable contact lens surgery isn’t designed to replace Lasik or other procedures for helping people with vision problems, Gans said. However, for people with very poor vision who can’t have Lasik, it’s an option.

Other conditions that could hamper getting implantable lens surgery is age or other eye problems, Gans said. “But each person is different, so you’d need an examination” to see if you’re a candidate, he said.

The procedure has been around for about seven years but hasn’t gotten the attention that Lasik and other refractive procedures have gotten, Gans said. It’s more expensive, ranging from $2,500 to $5,000 per eye, depending on the physician, according to reviews of the procedure across the Internet. Medical insurance doesn’t cover it because it’s considered a cosmetic procedure.

Also, fewer doctors perform the procedure, Gans said. A doctor-finder from the manufacturer has nine ophthalmologists’ locations in the St. Louis area where the surgery is provided. Four of those locations belong to Gans.

Gans said many patients prefer the method because there’s no cutting or permanent alteration of the eye and it’s reversible. “If it doesn’t work out we can go in and just take it out the same way we put it in,” Gans said.

A shortcoming is that the implant approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for public use doesn’t address astigmatisms — irregular eye texture that need special prescriptions to be corrected, Gans said.

That may change within a few years. The manufacturer makes lenses that correct astigmatisms, but they’re still being tested, Gans said.

It’s interesting, he said, “that they’ve been used for years in Europe, and … in the (U.S.) military; thousands of soldiers have these and no problems are being reported.”

He said he thought the FDA wanted to see what happens five to 10 years down the road.

Meanwhile, Gans said he has implanted hundreds of the regular lenses.

“You can’t imagine the way you feel when you can fix people like that,” he said. “I know there’s something I can do every day when I wake up and know I can make people’s lives better.”

Harry Jackson is a health reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.