STEVE INSKEEP, host:
I didn't know this. The first medical procedure that had millions throwing away their glasses was pioneered in Soviet Russia.
NPR's Vikki Valentine has a little history.
VIKKI VALENTINE: Many surgeons tried, but Slava Fyodorov was the first to perfect a surgical procedure that corrects nearsightedness called radial keratotomy, or RK. American ophthalmologist Jim Salz says Fyodorov started experimenting with (unintelligible) corneas in the early 1970s.
Dr. JIM SALZ (Clinical Professor of Ophthalmology, University of Southern California): And he found that you had to make the incisions precise and deep. The typical surgery was eight of these to 16 of these incisions would be made with a guarded diamond blade, in effect, in the pattern of the spokes of a wheel.
VALENTINE: Fyodorov was as brilliant a salesman as a surgeon. 60 Minutes featured him in a television interview in 1989. Fyodorov told Morley Safer that the Soviet bureaucracy had stymied his efforts to commercialize RK. But things had changed in '85 when Gorbachev came to power.
Dr. SLAVA FYODOROV (Ophthalmologic Surgeon): And Gorbachev, he understood immediately, number one. That's why everything which I ask, I received.
VALENTINE: Now Fyodorov advertised his surgical technique and his specially designed diamond knife. And he launched a medical ship called Floks that took the procedure to high-paying clients in the Middle East.
(Soundbite of advertisement)
Unidentified Woman #1: ...Floks, where surgeons use revolutionary methods developed in the famed Moscow Eye Microsurgery Complex...
VALENTINE: Fyodorov set up several clinics inside the Soviet Union, as well as in Soviet-friendly countries. He ran them like medical factories. Ophthalmologist Jim Salz saw the clinic in Cuba.
Dr. SALZ: It was like a conveyor belt where patients would lie down on a bed and then the bed would slide through this stainless steel door and would stop at the first surgeon under the microscope.
VALENTINE: Each surgeon performed a specific task and then the conveyor belt brought around the next patient. A chief surgeon, occasionally Fyodorov, supervised from a video-control room.
Dr. FYODOROV: ...beautiful, beautiful.
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
Dr. FYODOROV: Fantastic, beautiful.
VALENTINE: For Soviet citizens, RK was cheaper than glasses. The government paid for their surgeries. Foreign clients helped pay for staff training in cutting-edge operating rooms.
The waiting list for RK was two years long and Fyodorov wanted to open more clinics. People accused him of being a shameless self-promoter.
Emilia Reznik saw him another way. She was an ophthalmologist in his Moscow clinic.
Dr. EMILIA REZNIK (Ophthalmologist): He was the first one in Russia who understand that publicity makes prosperity. He was a very talented guy, very talented. And I would say, my own opinion, he didn't do it for anything else; he just wanted to get rid of those lines for the surgery.
VALENTINE: During the 20 years RK was popular more than a million people got the procedure in Russia and in the U.S. Eventually, its flaws were revealed. The procedure was unstable and some of those who had been nearsighted became farsighted. By that time, Fyodorov was well on to the next innovation: laser eye surgery.
Though he was no longer a leader in the field, Fyodorov had become one of post-communist Russia's first millionaires. Fyodorov died in 2000.
Vikki Valentine, NPR News, Washington.
INSKEEP: And that's Your Health for this morning. We tried to answer all your questions about eye surgery, but we may not have seen them all. So if you have more you can submit them to npr.org/your health.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.