A childhood accident blinded Mike May, but his disability never limited him. He drove motorcycles, hiked and even went downhill skiing.
Then after nearly a lifetime of darkness, May's doctors told him a stem cell and cornea transplant could restore his sight. May signed up for the surgery but soon discovered seeing wasn't necessarily believing.
The book "Crashing Through" by Rob Kurson chronicles May's journey after he regained his sight. May struggled with his new gift. He had trouble differentiating between men and women. Colors and patterns fascinated him, but his brain had forgotten how to process images. Learn how May dealt with his medical miracle by reading an excerpt from "Crashing Through" below.
Mike May's life was near perfect when, on February 11, 1999, he made his way to the dais in the ballroom of San Francisco's St. Francis Hotel. The forty-six-year-old businessman had been invited to present the prestigious Kay Gallagher Award for mentoring the blind, an award he'd won himself the previous year. Dozens in the audience knew his history: blinded at age three by a freak accident; three-time Paralympics gold medalist and current world record holder in downhill speed skiing; entrepreneur on the verge of bringing a portable global positioning system (GPS) to the blind; coinventor of the world's first laser turntable; mud hut dweller in Ghana; husband to a beautiful blond wife (in attendance and dressed in a tight black top, short black skirt, and black high heels); loving father; former CIA man.
People watched the way May moved. He walked with a quiet dignity, effortlessly negotiating the obstacle course of banquet tables and chairs, smiling at those he passed, shaking hands along the way. There was more than mobility in his step; his gait seemed free of regret, his body language devoid of longing. Most of the people in this room worked with the blind every day, so they knew what it looked like for a person to yearn for vision. May looked like he was exactly who he wanted to be.
He was accustomed to public speaking, and his messages were always inspiring. But every so often a member of the audience would turn on him, and it usually came at the same part of his talk, the part when he said, "Life with vision is great. But life without vision is great, too." At that point someone would stand and jab his finger and say, "That's impossible!" or "You're not dealing with your inner demons," or "You're in denial." The objections came from both the blind and the sighted. May was always polite, always let the person finish his thought. Then, in the warm but definite way in which he'd spoken since childhood, he would say, "I don't mean to speak for anyone else. But for me, life is great."
That, however, would not be the message for this evening. Instead, the tall and handsome May spoke glowingly about the award winner, about how much it had meant to him to win the Gallagher, and about the importance of mentoring. He seasoned his talk with jokes, some tried and true, others off the cuff, all to good effect. Then he presented the honoree with a plaque and a check and returned to his seat. When he sat down, his wife, Jennifer, told him, "You made me cry. You look beautiful in that suit. That was a lovely talk." May and Jennifer stayed at the hotel that night. Ordinarily, they would have awoken and made the seventy-five-mile drive to their home in Davis, California, each needing to return to work. But Jennifer's contact lenses had been bothering her, so she had scheduled an appointment with a San Francisco optometrist—not her regular eye doctor, but a college friend's husband who had been willing to see her on short notice. Though May was itching to get back to his home office, he agreed to accompany Jennifer to the appointment. The morning was glorious as the couple strolled San Francisco and enjoyed that rarest of pleasures, an unhurried weekday breakfast at a streetside café.
The optometrist's office was nearby, so May and Jennifer, along with May's Seeing Eye dog, a golden retriever named Josh, walked up Post Street to make it to the morning appointment. Jennifer assured him that the visit would take no more than thirty minutes. May had never accompanied his wife to an eye appointment and was pleasantly surprised to learn that they would be out so quickly. The waiting room grabbed Jennifer's attention straightaway. An interior designer, she lived in a world of color and flow, and she began describing it to May: the direction the chairs faced, the nar- rowing of the hallway that led to the exam rooms, the taupe of the wall behind the receptionist—"whose cheekbones are stunning, by the way." It intrigued May that he had married a woman whose universe was so dominated by the visual, and it delighted him that she felt so passionate about sharing it all with him, even about the beautiful women.
A few minutes later Mike Carson, the optometrist, greeted May and Jennifer and led them to an office. Carson examined Jennifer, recorded some measurements, and told her he would write her a new contact lens prescription. May was glad that things had gone so quickly—this would allow him to get home in time to pick up their sons from school.
Carson finished making his notes and flipped on the light. He looked at May for a few seconds, made another note in Jennifer's file, then looked back at May. He asked how long it had been since May had seen an eye doctor.
"At least ten years," May replied.
"How about if I take a look?" Carson asked. "That's a long time to go without seeing a doctor."
"You want to examine me?" May asked.
"Just for a second," said Carson. "Let's just make sure everything is healthy in there as long as you're here."
May thought about it for a moment, then said, "Sure, why not?" May and Jennifer switched places so that May now was in the examining chair, the one with the chin holder and instrument that looks like the pay-per-view binoculars on top of the Empire State Building.
"I think you're going to find that I'm blind," May joked.
The doctor leaned in and immediately saw that May had a bluecolored prosthetic left eye. His right eye, his natural eye, was nearly opaque and all white, evidence of dense corneal scarring. No pupil or color could be seen at all. Some blind people wear dark glasses to conceal such an eye, but May had never felt the need to do so. His eyelid drooped a bit, leaving his eye mostly closed, so no one reacted badly to it.
Carson stepped away and sat on a stool.
"Mike," he said, "I wonder if you'd mind if my partner, Dr. Dan Goodman, takes a look at you. He's an ophthalmologist, one of the best in the country. I think he'd be interested."
May glanced toward Jennifer with just the slightest quizzical look. Jennifer was already wearing the same expression. "I guess it can't hurt," May said.
Carson left the room. For a moment neither May nor Jennifer said anything. Then each said to the other, "That's interesting." A moment later Carson returned with his partner. Dr. Goodman, age forty-two, introduced himself and asked May how he'd lost his vision.
"It was a chemical explosion when I was three," May replied. "Do you have an ophthalmologist?" Goodman asked. "He died about ten years ago. He'd been my doctor since the accident," said May.
"What did he tell you about your vision?" Goodman asked. "He tried three or four corneal transplants when I was a kid," May said. "They all failed. After that, he told me that I would never see, I'd be blind forever. He was supposed to be a great ophthalmologist. I knew he was right."
"Who was he?" Goodman asked. "Dr. Max Fine," May replied. Goodman's eyes lit up. "Dr. Fine was a legend," Goodman said. "He was my teacher. I sought him out when I was young and asked to do surgery with him on Wednesday nights. He was one of the great ophthalmologists in the world."
May and Goodman spent a minute reminiscing about Dr. Fine. Then Goodman asked, "Mind if I take a look?" "Not at all," May replied.
Goodman dimmed the lights, stepped forward, and, using the thumb and forefinger on one hand, opened the lid of May's right eye. The stillness of the touch startled May. Goodman's hand stayed motionless, absent the vaguest hint of tremor. May had felt that kind of touch only once before, from Dr. Fine, who had held his eye open in just the same way. Goodman peered into May's eye. He saw the massive corneal scarring that trademarks a chemical explosion. He shone a penlight into May's eye, which May could barely detect (most blind people have some vague light perception). But when Goodman waved his hand in front of the eye May could not perceive the movement. Goodman conducted a few more tests, then looked through the same biomicroscope Carson had used. It took only moments for him to see that May was totally blind.
The exam lasted perhaps five minutes. Goodman turned on the lights and pulled up his stool.
"Mike," Goodman said. "I think we can make you see." The words barely registered with May. "There is a very new and very rare stem cell transplant procedure," Goodman continued. "It's indicated for very few types of cases. But a chemical burn like yours is one of them."
Jennifer leaned forward. She wasn't sure whether to look at Goodman or her husband. What was Goodman saying? "Despite your horrible corneal disease, it looks like there's good potential for vision in your eye, and that it can benefit from a stem cell transplant," Goodman said. "I've done maybe six of these procedures. Most ophthalmologists in the world haven't done any. It's not something anyone specializes in. And I don't know of anyone who has done one on a patient who has been blind for as long as you've been. But it could work."
All May could think to say was "That's interesting." "If you're interested you need to come back for something called a B-scan," Goodman explained. "That's an ultrasound designed to look into the back of the eye to make sure there's no gross pathology or abnormality. But if the B-scan is clean, there's a good chance this could work."
Goodman's words sounded surreal to May. His body and brain agreed simultaneously that it was impossible, that once Goodman ran the tests he would see what Dr. Fine had seen—a patient beyond repair. Still, the newness of the science intrigued May—he'd never before heard the term "stem cell" used in connection with vision— and he fashioned this thought: "I'm in the technology business, and technology changes all the time. Why can't vision technology change, too?"
"Is it complicated?" May asked. "The stem cell transplant is complicated," Goodman said. "By itself it provides no visual benefit. But it sets the stage for a cornea transplant three or four months later. If all goes right, the two surgeries add up to vision."
May appreciated that Goodman spoke clinically and directly, and without trying to inspire him. To Jennifer, something seemed amiss. Vision had always been impossible for May, not because science hadn't caught up to him but because something fundamental was missing or unfixable.
Jennifer watched May for his reaction. There was no hallelujah. There were no cries of "Oh, my God!" Rather, May pursed his lips slightly and gazed up and to the right a bit, the way he always looked when he was considering the theoretical rather than the wonderful. "I'd like to think about it, if that's okay," May said.
"Of course," Goodman said. "Take your time. Call my office if you'd like to go ahead with the B-scan. It was very nice to meet you." Goodman shook hands with May and Jennifer. And with that he was out of the room. The encounter had lasted less than ten minutes. After the appointment May and Jennifer were walking back to their red Dodge Caravan, which was still parked near the St. Francis Hotel. The weather was bright and brisk, and reminded Jennifer of the couple's newlywed days living in San Francisco, when they walked miles for just the right Chinese takeout and talked about their future on the way.
"Do you and Wyndham have soccer practice tonight?" Jennifer asked, unlocking the Caravan's doors.
"Not tonight," May said. "Good thing, too. I'm already behind on a bunch of business calls. It's amazing—just one day and the whole world seems to rush out from under your feet."
Josh climbed in and sat on the floor of the passenger side, between May's feet. Jennifer found her sunglasses, started the ignition, and pulled out onto Post Street. With good traffic they would be in Davis in an hour and a half. May opened his cell phone and began to return business calls, simultaneously making certain that Jennifer didn't miss the turnoff to Route 80. Though May could not see, he possessed a collection of uncannily accurate mental maps—it was that kind of skill, and others, that caused many to consider him a kind of super–blind man.
Once across the Bay Bridge, the couple relaxed a bit. For a few miles neither said anything. Then Jennifer looked over at May and remarked, "Well, that was fascinating."
"It sure was," May said. "It doesn't sound real, does it?" Jennifer hesitated for a moment. She hadn't had time to begin to sort out the implications of Goodman's offer, but she knew this much: something big had happened, and whatever it meant it was certain to be an intensely personal issue for her husband. For that reason she wanted to say nothing, to simply let him process it for himself. But she also needed to hear him talk.
"So, hypothetically," Jennifer finally said, "and we don't know if this would even work, but just for fun, what would it be like? What might you like to see?"
In twelve years of marriage they had never discussed what it might be like for May to see, not even in the playful way in which they allocated imaginary lottery winnings. Since early childhood, May himself had not thought about what it might be like to see, a fact that struck many who met him as inconceivable. The concept of vision simply was not part of his existence. Just the sound of Jennifer's question felt otherworldly to him.
"Well, Dr. Fine made it very clear that I would never see in my lifetime, so it's probably not possible," May said. "But just for fun . . ." Jennifer kept her eyes on the road.
"I think I'd like to see panoramas, especially at Kirkwood," May said, referring to the family's favorite ski resort. "And I'd like to see beautiful women."
"That makes sense," Jennifer said. "You're always thinking about those things anyway."
"Panoramas and women are two things I love but can't go around touching. They can't really be adequately described to me. Those are two things you really have to touch with your eyes in order to fully appreciate." "Where might you go to see these beautiful women—other than your own home, of course?" she asked.
"Saint-Tropez. Straight to the topless beaches." "I need a tan," Jennifer said. "Mind if I go with you?" "If you don't mind me gawking."
"You've been gawking since I met you. What else?" May thought further. He told Jennifer he might like to see the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty or the Galápagos Islands, all places to which he'd already traveled. Definitely the Golden Gate Bridge. Jennifer nodded and kept driving, past rolling hills and sprawling strip malls. Neither she nor May spoke for a time, each of them content to paw at and then retreat from this new idea. Finally Jennifer asked May if he might like to see their boys.
"Of course I would," May said. "I would love to share the experience with them—it would be like stepping on the moon with them. But it's interesting, Jen. I think about seeing them and I don't feel like I'll see anything I don't already see. I feel like I already know exactly what those boys look like, not just physically but their entire beings. So in a certain way I can't imagine vision making any difference. That sounds strange, doesn't it? But I can't imagine vision or anything else adding anything to how much I love or feel like I know those guys."
The van rolled along in silence for a few seconds. "And, of course, I feel exactly the same about you," May said. "I already know you."
"What if you didn't like how I looked?" Jennifer asked. "You're beautiful," May said. "I think I know exactly what you look like. What would I see that I don't already see? You're gorgeous." For a while May and Jennifer said nothing. At the halfway point they compared hunger levels and debated whether to stop for lunch. The consensus was to press forward in order to make it home in time to pick up the kids from school.
"Saint-Tropez, huh?" Jennifer asked.
May laughed. Jennifer took the Davis exit, telling her husband about a new client she had lined up, listening to his ideas for a new driving route to Kirkwood. He appreciated this hour with his wife. She had never mentioned the myriad practical benefits that would accrue to her if he could see—his ability to drive, fill the gas tank, read his own mail, sort the laundry, pick up groceries. "Imagine seeing the panoramas at Kirkwood," May said. "This really has been an interesting day."
Jennifer pulled her van into the two-car garage of the Mays' threebedroom house, which sat at the elbow of one of the town's shady, tree-named streets.
Inside, the couple thanked Jennifer's mother, who had watched five-year-old Wyndham and seven-year-old Carson, and kissed her good-bye. May threw a tennis ball to Josh in the backyard, fixed himself a sandwich, and continued the daylong process of returning business calls. When the boys' school let out, he strapped the tan leather harness on Josh and walked over to pick them up. Kids called out, "Hi, Mr. May! Can we pet Josh?" As always, May said, "Sure thing, Tyler" or "Is that you, Emily?" On the walk home his sons competed to describe the bugs they'd found during recess. The rest of May's day moved like every other: business calls, wrestling with the boys, feeling a new fabric Jennifer had picked for a client, drafting a business letter, doing the dishes, telling bedtime stories. It had been ten hours since May had returned from his meeting with Dr. Goodman. In that time he had not thought once about new vision.
And that is how quickly life returned to normal for May. His start-up business was primary in his mind. In a risky move, he had resigned his executive position at a major adaptive technology company in order to design, manufacture, and market a portable GPS system for the blind—the first of its kind. By linking May's receiver and mapping software to a laptop computer contained in a backpack, a customer could tune in the global positioning satellites that orbited the earth. Then, with the push of a button, that customer could receive real-time, turn-by-turn directions to whatever location he desired: home, work, grocery store, restaurant, park, Starbucks— anywhere. May saw his product as liberating. It gave a kind of vision to the blind.
But he needed funding, so much of May's life centered on pitching potential investors. He had bet it all on this company (which was still without a name), drawing on personal savings to support both business and family. Neither he nor Jennifer was of independent means, which meant that he had maybe a year to make the business work. After that, he would need to return to the corporate world. The restraint on freedom that came with a traditional executive position was discordant with May's DNA.
He worked eighteen-hour days, testing the GPS between coffee shops in Davis, on the ferry to San Francisco, in airplanes as the unit's cables spaghettied onto the shoulder of the person seated beside him. In Anaheim he raced a group of blind cane users from their hotel to Disneyland. Even though he had to stop along the way to hot-glue some loose wires, he still won. May believed in his product. And he was able to work from home, a godsend in allowing him the time with his family he so deeply desired.
When Wyndham's soccer coach quit before the team's first practice, parents gathered at May's house to determine what to do next. He told them that he would coach the team, practices and all, and that he would mail them schedules immediately. The parents applauded. When May got up to adjourn the meeting and reached for his cane, some of the mothers said, "Wait a minute—you're blind?" May said, "Yep."
He ran drills like Sharks and Minnows, set up orange cones in a mostly symmetrical field shape, and taught the five-year-olds ( Jennifer called them "widgets") to run together in packets toward the correct goal. They loved his stories about playing soccer in college, like the one where he made the other team use his beeping ball for an entire half, and how he got a bloody nose when the silent ball hit him in the face.
Many of the players knew May from school. Every year, he'd bring Josh to area classrooms to tell children what it was like to be blind. He loved their questions: Do your kids get away with stuff because you can't see them? No, because I have secret techniques to stop them. But they always try. Were you all bloody after your accident? Super bloody. When you met Bill Clinton, how did you know it was really him? I asked him to talk so I could make sure. He demonstrated his talking gadgets with the robot voices, set up a maze of chairs to show how he could zigzag around with Josh, and printed each kid's name in braille on a card they could take home. Carson and Wyndham thought they had the coolest dad in the world. The couple had never taught the boys to be proud of May. As Jennifer told people, "They just are."
In the time between working and parenting, May squeezed in the remainder of a full-blown life. Much of this was made possible by his exceptional ability to move through the world. Often, sighted people would observe him walking smoothly through a banquet hall or an airport or an unfamiliar house and insist that May could see. Some would even challenge him on it. He was hard-pressed to explain his skill in simple terms.
Part of it stemmed from May's highly refined ability to detect echo. Over the years, he had learned to distinguish tiny differences made by the sounds of voices or footsteps or canes as they bounced off various objects and openings. The information was so subtle that it vanished if May tried to think about it. Many blind people cannot use echolocation—some can't hear the echoes; others refuse to trust them. Echoes were sewn into May's instinct.
Spatial perception and spatial memory were also critically important. As he moved about a place, whether in a friend's dining room or New York's Penn Station, May's brain vacuumed in the relative locations of obstacles, openings, and passageways, then assembled them into mental maps he could recall at will. He attributed this understanding of space—and his ability to memorize and utilize it so fluently—to his lifetime of participation in sports.
And May was flat-out good with his two primary mobility instruments, the cane and the dog. Few blind people use both, but May saw power in each. The cane was simpler to use and didn't need feeding, but it bogged down in crowded situations and never picked up overhead obstructions, the enemy of the fast and free. The dog was difficult to take overseas and had to be fed and walked during business trips, but he was able to detect overhead obstructions, could move quickly through crowds, and was nice company. Of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States in 1999, the great majority used canes, while only 7,000 used dog guides.
May's mobility skills lowered the drawbridge to the world. But it was his approach that took him places. To go where May wanted to go—which was everywhere—one had to be willing to get lost, a terrifying prospect to many blind people. To May, getting lost was the best part. He told people, "I'm very curious. So getting lost doesn't feel like a bad thing. It's part of the process of discovering things." When they asked how he'd gotten so adept at cane travel he told them it was his curiosity, not his cane.
Weeks had passed since May had met Goodman and still he'd given little thought to the doctor's offer. Every so often, Jennifer would ask her husband for his thinking on the subject of new vision, and it was at these times that May appreciated her most. There was no longing in her question, no subtext of urging him along. May confessed to Jennifer that he hadn't thought much about Goodman's offer. He also told her that life already felt good and busy and full. And that's how they left it as winter turned to spring.
As the months passed, however, May did not feel that it was responsible to allow the matter of new vision to linger dormant on his to-do list. He respected the import of Goodman's offer and knew that he should give it the serious consideration it deserved. He began to turn things over in his head.
He tried to imagine a life with vision. But his thoughts always returned to his current life, his real life. He had risked everything on his business, which was now in its most critical phase and demanded his full attention; a single misstep could tear it from its moorings and drown the project. After two recent close calls during similarly stressful periods, his marriage was now thriving and hopeful.
He was focused on raising his boys and being present for the moments in their lives—especially the small ones—which already seemed to fly past too quickly.
He tried to imagine what vision could offer. He could already go virtually wherever he chose—and loved the adventure of finding his way. He could already do whatever he desired—sometimes better than the sighted. And he continued to believe that he saw Jennifer and his boys in the real sense of the word—the sense that speaks to what it really means to know a person, what it means to connect to another's soul.
Vision was not calling to May. He knew that the idea of a blind man refusing sight would strike most of the world as unthinkable. But he thought of it this way: What if a sighted person was offered a new sense? What if he was offered, say, the ability to foretell the future? At first, that prospect might seem thrilling. But if the person was already leading a full and rich life, would he really want it? Might it not disrupt an otherwise wonderful life? And what if it turned out to be something wholly different from what the person had bargained for? May wondered how many happy people would proceed if offered a permanent crystal ball or sonar or the ability to read minds. How many of them would say yes to a new sense? And that is how May felt about vision. His life was already complete without it. And yet, during the breaks in his days, May found himself wondering about what it might be like to see. He might be touching one of Jennifer's fabrics and think, "What would my favorite color be?"
Shooting hoops with his sons he might ask, "Would I recognize my boys right away?" At the neighborhood coffee shop where he loved to listen to the lilting conversations and high-heeled clicks of women, he wondered, "Would I still prefer blondes?" May continued to focus on his work and his family. This was no time to be distracted from what was most important. Still, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge he might ponder, "What would I find beautiful?" Walking in the park he might ask himself, "What would look familiar to me?" Shaving in the bathroom he thought, "Would I look like myself?"
And he wondered about the red hat. When he was a very young boy, just before his accident, his father had taken him deer hunting, a mystical adventure that had required awakening before dawn, carrying weapons, and wearing a bright red hat for visibility, one that could be seen from distances of forever. This was May's first memory in life. Since losing his vision, he had felt himself just a whisper from being able to see that red hat in his mind; it was always just a hairsbreadth beyond his grasp— there but not there. And he asked himself, "Would I see that red hat if somehow I were made to see?"
One night in August, after the boys had been bathed and tucked in, Jennifer and May sat on lawn chairs under the orange tree in their backyard. She had asked him little about the prospect of new vision. Tonight, she wanted to know. "So, where are you on this?" Jennifer asked. "Do you think about it?"
"I do think about it," May said. "Every time, I ask myself if vision would really change my life. And every time the answer is the same: I don't think it would. Life is already so full. I don't need it. I don't feel like I'm missing a thing."
For a minute neither of them said anything. Then Jennifer leaned over, kissed her husband's cheek, and said, "Okay." of Jennifer's fabrics and think, "What would my favorite color be?" Shooting hoops with his sons he might ask, "Would I recognize my boys right away?" At the neighborhood coffee shop where he loved to listen to the lilting conversations and high-heeled clicks of women, he wondered, "Would I still prefer blondes?" May continued to focus on his work and his family. This was no time to be distracted from what was most important. Still, crossing the Golden Gate Bridge he might ponder, "What would I find beautiful?" Walking in the park he might ask himself, "What would look familiar to me?" Shaving in the bathroom he thought, "Would I look like myself?"
Excerpted from "Crashing Through" by Robert Kurson Copyright © 2007 by Robert Kurson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.