Trendy new contact lenses promised to make his brown eyes blue and huge. But when Lucas Dixon tried a pair of $20 circle contact lenses from an urban clothing store, he got far more. Within days, the 20-year-old Oklahoma City man awoke to swollen eyes and pain. By the fifth day, the pain was unbearable and a blinding white film covered his entire right eye. "I was terrified,” Dixon said. Doctors consider him lucky. He could have lost the eye. He's among a growing number of people in Oklahoma and nationwide unknowingly risking their eyes when they buy the illegal, nonprescription contact lenses to emulate the big-eyed look Lady Gaga flaunted in a music video or the Japanese anime cartoon characters. Dixon said his eyes were so bad that he was rushed to the emergency room twice while visiting his sister in Claremore. He said he'd borrowed eye drops for pinkeye to calm the initial irritation, but steroids in the drops lowered his immunity and led to an infected eye ulcer caused by the contact scratching the eye. On his second visit, emergency room doctors immediately sent him to a Tulsa specialist. Dixon suddenly found himself surrounded by a group of doctors who had urgent warnings. "They said the contacts are illegal. One doctor said this was one of the worst cases she'd ever seen. She told me I could lose my eye,” he said. "I didn't have a clue.” At the doctors' urging, Dixon's brother-in-law immediately drove him to the Dean McGee Eye Institute in Oklahoma City, where corneal specialist Dr. Donald Stone began working to save Dixon's sight. Ophthalmologists at the institute are seeing a rash of potentially blinding eye infections from people who have tried wearing cosmetic contact lenses. "The problem is once you notice the symptoms, that means you already have an infection. And then within a day or two it can become very severe,” Stone said. "Some of these infections can progress to blindness within a few days.” Stone began medicating and closely monitoring Dixon's eye infection, and then fit him with a corrective lens to reshape the eye. Stone said Dixon's brush with blindness left his eye permanently scarred. After weeks of treatment, Dixon said his vision still hasn't completely returned. He always will need to wear the special contact lens.
'It's an under- the-radar thing'Stone said he's seen several teenagers recently with permanent scarring of the cornea and permanent vision loss. "If enough of them get these infections, eventually some of them will be bad enough to require a cornea transplant,” he said. Though there are no estimates on the percentage of teens and young people who are trying the lenses, Stone said the institute and ophthalmologists nationwide have seen an increasing number of eye problems apparently linked to the contacts. "It's an under-the-radar thing that no one is going to admit to. So I really don't think we have any idea how common these are,” he said. "But since they are selling them at flea markets, that tells you there's a market for it.” Ophthalmologists across the country anticipate more eye problems as sales pick up before Halloween, Stone said. Carri Ferguson, Dean McGee contact lens specialist, said ophthalmologists have seen the results of illegal, nonprescription colored lenses sold at flea markets and convenience stores for years. She said the new Malaysian-made, unregulated circle contacts are an even more serious concern. "The diameter is a lot larger, and they're using material from 30 or 40 years ago that doesn't allow oxygen to get to the cornea. The FDA doesn't approve the use of these materials,” Ferguson said. With no prescription required, circle contact lens wearers fail to get properly fitted or vital, eye-saving instructions on proper use, disinfection and hygiene. "It's really devastating. They're doing it because it's fun and it's cool. But it's really not worth it,” she said. Many young people learn about the contacts through numerous YouTube videos. One video showing how to get the Lady Gaga look shown in her recent video, "Bad Romance,” has been viewed more than 14 million times. Circle lens websites let buyers choose the color and strength of lenses, while FDA-approved contact prescriptions are supposed to be verified before they can be sold online. Young people also learn through word-of-mouth that the contacts are available from some beauty salons, retail stores and convenience stores, said Travis Brown, a state Health Department public health specialist. Dixon said he got his contacts from JJ Fashion at 1017 SE 44. Despite numerous attempts to reach the store, no one answered the phone there and the voice mail was full. Brown said the department will check on the store or others if the department receives complaints through its website. He said inspectors have brought illegal items to the attention of store owners previously. They pull the items rather than face a $100 fine and/or up to 30 days jail time for a first offense and $500 fine and/or six months in jail for any following offenses, he said. No contact sellers have had to pay up or serve time so far. Dixon said his best friend bought the contacts to go with every outfit she wears but quit wearing them after Dixon's experience. Dixon said his brown eyes look pretty good. "I feel a little bit more proud of my eye color now. I don't feel the need to change to anything else after what I went through with those contacts,” he said. "People need to know because lots of people are wearing them. Nobody should have to go through what I went through.”