Don't Try This at Home
How I Risked My Life for Eye Research

By Rich McCollim

The familiar concept that myopic eyes tend to have greater axial length suggested an idea: Myopic eyes are long, so why fool around. Why not just shorten them? A search of the literature indicated that apparently no one had ever suggested this, let alone made the attempt. I quickly rejected any mechanical means, such as some sort of calipers to compress the eyeball longitudinally. The obvious answer was centrifugal force, applied so as to push the eyeball from the front. The subject would sit in a chair mounted on a revolving base, facing inward toward the center of rotation. As the speed is increases, so does the centrifugal force exerted on the eyeball. Not only would this shorten the eyeball, it would have the serendipitous effect of flattening the cornea, an aditional advantage.

I made a rough sketch of the device and found a rundown machine shop in Tijuana whose owner gave me a good price to produce the various parts, which I then smugggled into the U.S. to San Diego (although one may bring in several hundred dollars worth of goods duty-free, duties are supposed to be paid for any item that is custom-made). I bought a rather expensive variable-speed direct-current electric motor and assembled the device in a rented garage. The chair in which the subject sat was of welded steel, firmly braced with strong steel aircraft cable. I grandly christened my device the "Optifuge", with which I was going to make ophthalmological history.

The first trials were inconclusive because I kept the rotational speed very low until I got used to the very unpleasant effects of vertigo and nausea. I had made numerous calculations to determine what speed would produce a given number of g's. Two g's (which meant that my body weight became twice that of normal) was fairly uncomfortable but bearable. I had originally thought only about exerting g forces on the eyes, forgetting for the moment their effect on the entire body. I was able to gradually increase the speed. Spinning round and round in a circle, with a diameter of about six feet, everything was a complete blur even at lower speeds of 20-30 rpm. I was eventually able to increase the speed to over 100 rpm, equal to 5 g's, which was so painful that I could do this for only one or two minutes before having to shut down. At five g's my normal body weight of 185 pounds was equal to 925 pounds. The centrifugal force was so great that it took all my strengh to move my arm from my chest out some eight inches in order to reach the shutoff switch. This switch was controlled by a nylon cord that hung down from the ceiling directly in the centr of rotation, so that it could be reached no matter where I was within the circle of rotation.

I also had a secondary shut-off switch actuated by a spring-driven timer, which I would usually set to turn of the Optifuge automatically in case I was unable to do it manually.

I used this device almost daily for some six months, and although I did note some changes in visual acuity, which I thought were due to either axial shortening or corneal flattening, or, more likely, both, I eventually concluded that the idea was a failure. And even if it had succeeded in curing or reducing myopia, few people would be willing to do this.

However, before I terminated the project I had one life-threatening experience. Since I usually used the manual shut-off switch to stop the rotation, I didn't pay much attention to the backup switch. It was a cheap spring-loaded device that I had bought in a hardware store. The time setting was done by a pointer that was rotated clockwise around a dial until the time was set--5 minutes, 10 minutes, etc. As the dial was turned, the spring tightened. The greater the time limit set, the tighter the spring wound. However, I noticed (but didn't think much about it at the time) that if I set the timer to only one minute or so, the spring was barely tightened and sometimes didn't have enough tension to fully turn the point back to zero, which would turn off the switch.

One day I decided to go for the maximum number of g's, and set the device to wind up to 120 rpm. In about 20 seconds I decided I couldn't take it anymore and reached for the cord to shut down. Unfortunately, the high rotational speed produced strong air currents that swung the cord, even though weighted at the end with a piece of metal, away from the center. On my second attempt at grabbing it I instead hit it with my hand and knocked it upward where it got hooked on one of the wooden roof beams, totally out of reach! This scared the hell out of me! The g forces were so painful that I didn't think I could last more than a minute ot two more. Also, because blood is pushed toward the occipital area of the brain and of course starves the frontal area, I had the feeling that I was going to black out. If I had managed to get out of the chair (very unlikely), I would have been thrown against the wall doing about 40 miles per hour. Because I had set the timer for only about two minutes, I immediately remembered how it had failed a few times in the past when set for short time periods. After what seemed like forever, I heard the most wonderful sound, a faint click as it switched off and the electric motor began slowing and then came to a gradual stop. Whew!

(Actually, this happened fairly early in the experiment, before I had found out all I wanted to know. Since I wanted to continue a little more, I had a machine shop build a stainless steel cylinder, about 10 feet high, which was bolted onto the base of the machine. The device now weighed more than a ton. I now had a futuristic rocket-appearing device that looked more professional. Now I would enter through a door in the side, and that made me feel more secure, along with the fact that the switch cutoff cord hung down through a small hole in the roof of the device, protected from any air currents.)