From Darkness to Light: Blind Man Struggles After Regaining Sight

Rob Kurson's new book follows a blind man who regained his sight after decades.

Sept. 25, 2007 — -- 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.

Chapter One

Mike May's life was near perfect when, on February 11, 1999, hemade his way to the dais in the ballroom of San Francisco's St. FrancisHotel.The forty-six-year-old businessman had been invited to presentthe prestigious Kay Gallagher Award for mentoring the blind, anaward he'd won himself the previous year. Dozens in the audienceknew his history: blinded at age three by a freak accident; three-timeParalympics gold medalist and current world record holder indownhill speed skiing; entrepreneur on the verge of bringing aportable global positioning system (GPS) to the blind; coinventor ofthe world's first laser turntable; mud hut dweller in Ghana; husbandto a beautiful blond wife (in attendance and dressed in a tight blacktop, short black skirt, and black high heels); loving father; formerCIA man.

People watched the way May moved. He walked with a quiet dignity,effortlessly negotiating the obstacle course of banquet tablesand 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 thisroom worked with the blind every day, so they knew what it lookedlike for a person to yearn for vision. May looked like he was exactlywho he wanted to be.

He was accustomed to public speaking, and his messages werealways inspiring. But every so often a member of the audience wouldturn on him, and it usually came at the same part of his talk, the partwhen he said, "Life with vision is great. But life without vision isgreat, too." At that point someone would stand and jab his fingerand say, "That's impossible!" or "You're not dealing with your innerdemons," or "You're in denial." The objections came from both theblind and the sighted. May was always polite, always let the personfinish his thought. Then, in the warm but definite way in which he'dspoken since childhood, he would say, "I don't mean to speak foranyone 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 awardwinner, about how much it had meant to him to win the Gallagher,and about the importance of mentoring. He seasoned his talk withjokes, some tried and true, others off the cuff, all to good effect. Thenhe presented the honoree with a plaque and a check and returned tohis seat. When he sat down, his wife, Jennifer, told him, "You mademe cry. You look beautiful in that suit. That was a lovely talk."May and Jennifer stayed at the hotel that night. Ordinarily, theywould have awoken and made the seventy-five-mile drive to theirhome in Davis, California, each needing to return to work. But Jennifer'scontact lenses had been bothering her, so she had scheduledan appointment with a San Francisco optometrist—not her regulareye doctor, but a college friend's husband who had been willing tosee her on short notice. Though May was itching to get back to hishome office, he agreed to accompany Jennifer to the appointment.The morning was glorious as the couple strolled San Francisco andenjoyed that rarest of pleasures, an unhurried weekday breakfast at astreetside café.

The optometrist's office was nearby, so May and Jennifer, alongwith May's Seeing Eye dog, a golden retriever named Josh, walked upPost Street to make it to the morning appointment. Jennifer assuredhim that the visit would take no more than thirty minutes. May hadnever accompanied his wife to an eye appointment and was pleasantlysurprised to learn that they would be out so quickly.The waiting room grabbed Jennifer's attention straightaway. Aninterior designer, she lived in a world of color and flow, and shebegan describing it to May: the direction the chairs faced, the nar-rowing of the hallway that led to the exam rooms, the taupe of thewall behind the receptionist—"whose cheekbones are stunning, bythe way." It intrigued May that he had married a woman whose universewas so dominated by the visual, and it delighted him that shefelt so passionate about sharing it all with him, even about the beautifulwomen.

A few minutes later Mike Carson, the optometrist, greeted Mayand Jennifer and led them to an office. Carson examined Jennifer,recorded some measurements, and told her he would write her anew contact lens prescription. May was glad that things had gone soquickly—this would allow him to get home in time to pick up theirsons from school.

Carson finished making his notes and flipped on the light. Helooked 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 Mayhad seen an eye doctor.

"At least ten years," May replied.

"How about if I take a look?" Carson asked. "That's a long time togo without seeing a doctor."

"You want to examine me?" May asked.

"Just for a second," said Carson. "Let's just make sure everythingis 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 examiningchair, the one with the chin holder and instrument thatlooks like the pay-per-view binoculars on top of the Empire StateBuilding.

"I think you're going to find that I'm blind," May joked.

The doctor leaned in and immediately saw that May had a bluecoloredprosthetic left eye. His right eye, his natural eye, was nearlyopaque and all white, evidence of dense corneal scarring. No pupilor color could be seen at all. Some blind people wear dark glasses toconceal such an eye, but May had never felt the need to do so. Hiseyelid drooped a bit, leaving his eye mostly closed, so no one reactedbadly to it.

Carson stepped away and sat on a stool.

"Mike," he said, "I wonder if you'd mind if my partner, Dr. DanGoodman, takes a look at you. He's an ophthalmologist, one of thebest in the country. I think he'd be interested."

May glanced toward Jennifer with just the slightest quizzicallook. 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 Jennifersaid 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 losthis 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 neversee, 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. Isought him out when I was young and asked to do surgery with himon Wednesday nights. He was one of the great ophthalmologists inthe 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 thethumb 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 oftouch only once before, from Dr. Fine, who had held his eye open injust the same way.Goodman peered into May's eye. He saw the massive cornealscarring that trademarks a chemical explosion. He shone a penlightinto May's eye, which May could barely detect (most blind peoplehave some vague light perception). But when Goodman waved hishand in front of the eye May could not perceive the movement.Goodman conducted a few more tests, then looked through thesame biomicroscope Carson had used. It took only moments forhim to see that May was totally blind.

The exam lasted perhaps five minutes. Goodman turned on thelights 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 ofcases. But a chemical burn like yours is one of them."

Jennifer leaned forward. She wasn't sure whether to look atGoodman or her husband. What was Goodman saying?"Despite your horrible corneal disease, it looks like there's goodpotential for vision in your eye, and that it can benefit from a stemcell transplant," Goodman said. "I've done maybe six of these procedures.Most ophthalmologists in the world haven't done any. It's notsomething anyone specializes in. And I don't know of anyone whohas done one on a patient who has been blind for as long as you'vebeen. 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 calleda B-scan," Goodman explained. "That's an ultrasound designed tolook into the back of the eye to make sure there's no gross pathologyor abnormality. But if the B-scan is clean, there's a good chance thiscould work."

Goodman's words sounded surreal to May. His body and brainagreed simultaneously that it was impossible, that once Goodmanran the tests he would see what Dr. Fine had seen—a patient beyondrepair. Still, the newness of the science intrigued May—he'd neverbefore heard the term "stem cell" used in connection with vision—and he fashioned this thought: "I'm in the technology business, andtechnology changes all the time. Why can't vision technologychange, too?"

"Is it complicated?" May asked."The stem cell transplant is complicated," Goodman said. "By itselfit provides no visual benefit. But it sets the stage for a corneatransplant three or four months later. If all goes right, the two surgeriesadd up to vision."

May appreciated that Goodman spoke clinically and directly,and without trying to inspire him. To Jennifer, something seemedamiss. Vision had always been impossible for May, not because sciencehadn't caught up to him but because something fundamentalwas 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 lipsslightly and gazed up and to the right a bit, the way he always lookedwhen 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 ifyou'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 hewas out of the room. The encounter had lasted less than ten minutes.After the appointment May and Jennifer were walking back totheir red Dodge Caravan, which was still parked near the St. FrancisHotel. The weather was bright and brisk, and reminded Jennifer ofthe couple's newlywed days living in San Francisco, when theywalked miles for just the right Chinese takeout and talked abouttheir future on the way.

"Do you and Wyndham have soccer practice tonight?" Jenniferasked, unlocking the Caravan's doors.

"Not tonight," May said. "Good thing, too. I'm already behind ona bunch of business calls. It's amazing—just one day and the wholeworld seems to rush out from under your feet."

Josh climbed in and sat on the floor of the passenger side, betweenMay's feet. Jennifer found her sunglasses, started the ignition,and pulled out onto Post Street. With good traffic they would be inDavis in an hour and a half. May opened his cell phone and began toreturn business calls, simultaneously making certain that Jenniferdidn't miss the turnoff to Route 80. Though May could not see, hepossessed a collection of uncannily accurate mental maps—it wasthat kind of skill, and others, that caused many to consider him akind of super–blind man.

Once across the Bay Bridge, the couple relaxed a bit. For a fewmiles neither said anything. Then Jennifer looked over at May andremarked, "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 tosort out the implications of Goodman's offer, but she knew thismuch: something big had happened, and whatever it meant it wascertain to be an intensely personal issue for her husband. For thatreason she wanted to say nothing, to simply let him process it forhimself. But she also needed to hear him talk.

"So, hypothetically," Jennifer finally said, "and we don't know ifthis would even work, but just for fun, what would it be like? Whatmight you like to see?"

In twelve years of marriage they had never discussed what itmight be like for May to see, not even in the playful way in whichthey allocated imaginary lottery winnings. Since early childhood,May himself had not thought about what it might be like to see, afact that struck many who met him as inconceivable. The concept ofvision simply was not part of his existence. Just the sound of Jennifer'squestion felt otherworldly to him.

"Well, Dr. Fine made it very clear that I would never see in mylifetime, 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," Maysaid, referring to the family's favorite ski resort. "And I'd like to seebeautiful women."

"That makes sense," Jennifer said. "You're always thinking aboutthose things anyway."

"Panoramas and women are two things I love but can't goaround touching. They can't really be adequately described to me.Those are two things you really have to touch with your eyes in orderto fully appreciate.""Where might you go to see these beautiful women—other thanyour 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 EiffelTower or the Statue of Liberty or the Galápagos Islands, all placesto which he'd already traveled. Definitely the Golden Gate Bridge.Jennifer nodded and kept driving, past rolling hills and sprawlingstrip malls. Neither she nor May spoke for a time, each of themcontent to paw at and then retreat from this new idea. Finally Jenniferasked May if he might like to see their boys.

"Of course I would," May said. "I would love to share the experiencewith 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 likeI'll see anything I don't already see. I feel like I already know exactlywhat 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 anythingelse adding anything to how much I love or feel like I knowthose guys."

The van rolled along in silence for a few seconds."And, of course, I feel exactly the same about you," May said. "Ialready know you."

"What if you didn't like how I looked?" Jennifer asked. "You're beautiful," May said. "I think I know exactly what youlook 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 pointthey compared hunger levels and debated whether to stop for lunch.The consensus was to press forward in order to make it home intime to pick up the kids from school.

"Saint-Tropez, huh?" Jennifer asked.

May laughed. Jennifer took the Davis exit, telling her husbandabout a new client she had lined up, listening to his ideas for a newdriving route to Kirkwood. He appreciated this hour with his wife.She had never mentioned the myriad practical benefits that wouldaccrue 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. "Thisreally has been an interesting day."

Jennifer pulled her van into the two-car garage of the Mays' threebedroomhouse, which sat at the elbow of one of the town's shady,tree-named streets.

Inside, the couple thanked Jennifer's mother, who had watchedfive-year-old Wyndham and seven-year-old Carson, and kissed hergood-bye. May threw a tennis ball to Josh in the backyard, fixed himselfa sandwich, and continued the daylong process of returningbusiness calls. When the boys' school let out, he strapped the tanleather harness on Josh and walked over to pick them up. Kids calledout, "Hi, Mr. May! Can we pet Josh?" As always, May said, "Surething, Tyler" or "Is that you, Emily?" On the walk home his sonscompeted 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 fora client, drafting a business letter, doing the dishes, telling bedtimestories. It had been ten hours since May had returned from his meetingwith Dr. Goodman. In that time he had not thought once aboutnew vision.

And that is how quickly life returned to normal for May. Hisstart-up business was primary in his mind. In a risky move, he hadresigned his executive position at a major adaptive technology companyin order to design, manufacture, and market a portable GPSsystem for the blind—the first of its kind. By linking May's receiverand mapping software to a laptop computer contained in a backpack,a customer could tune in the global positioning satellites thatorbited the earth. Then, with the push of a button, that customercould receive real-time, turn-by-turn directions to whatever locationhe desired: home, work, grocery store, restaurant, park, Starbucks—anywhere. May saw his product as liberating. It gave a kindof vision to the blind.

But he needed funding, so much of May's life centered on pitchingpotential investors. He had bet it all on this company (which wasstill without a name), drawing on personal savings to support bothbusiness and family. Neither he nor Jennifer was of independentmeans, which meant that he had maybe a year to make the businesswork. After that, he would need to return to the corporate world.The restraint on freedom that came with a traditional executive positionwas discordant with May's DNA.

He worked eighteen-hour days, testing the GPS between coffeeshops in Davis, on the ferry to San Francisco, in airplanes as theunit's cables spaghettied onto the shoulder of the person seated besidehim. In Anaheim he raced a group of blind cane users from theirhotel to Disneyland. Even though he had to stop along the way tohot-glue some loose wires, he still won. May believed in his product.And he was able to work from home, a godsend in allowing himthe 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, andthat he would mail them schedules immediately. The parents applauded.When May got up to adjourn the meeting and reached forhis 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 amostly symmetrical field shape, and taught the five-year-olds ( Jennifercalled them "widgets") to run together in packets toward thecorrect goal. They loved his stories about playing soccer in college,like the one where he made the other team use his beeping ball for anentire half, and how he got a bloody nose when the silent ball hit himin the face.

Many of the players knew May from school. Every year, he'dbring Josh to area classrooms to tell children what it was like to beblind. He loved their questions: Do your kids get away with stuff becauseyou can't see them? No, because I have secret techniques to stop them.But they always try. Were you all bloody after your accident? Superbloody. When you met Bill Clinton, how did you know it was reallyhim? I asked him to talk so I could make sure. He demonstrated his talkinggadgets with the robot voices, set up a maze of chairs to showhow he could zigzag around with Josh, and printed each kid's namein braille on a card they could take home. Carson and Wyndhamthought they had the coolest dad in the world. The couple had nevertaught the boys to be proud of May. As Jennifer told people, "Theyjust are."

In the time between working and parenting, May squeezed in theremainder of a full-blown life. Much of this was made possible by hisexceptional ability to move through the world. Often, sighted peoplewould observe him walking smoothly through a banquet hall oran airport or an unfamiliar house and insist that May could see.Some would even challenge him on it. He was hard-pressed to explainhis skill in simple terms.

Part of it stemmed from May's highly refined ability to detectecho. Over the years, he had learned to distinguish tiny differencesmade by the sounds of voices or footsteps or canes as they bouncedoff various objects and openings. The information was so subtle thatit vanished if May tried to think about it. Many blind people cannotuse echolocation—some can't hear the echoes; others refuse to trustthem. 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 diningroom or New York's Penn Station, May's brain vacuumed in the relativelocations of obstacles, openings, and passageways, then assembledthem into mental maps he could recall at will. He attributed thisunderstanding of space—and his ability to memorize and utilize itso 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 Maysaw power in each. The cane was simpler to use and didn't need feeding,but it bogged down in crowded situations and never pickedup overhead obstructions, the enemy of the fast and free. The dogwas difficult to take overseas and had to be fed and walked duringbusiness trips, but he was able to detect overhead obstructions,could move quickly through crowds, and was nice company. Of the1.3 million legally blind people in the United States in 1999, the greatmajority used canes, while only 7,000 used dog guides.

May's mobility skills lowered the drawbridge to the world. But itwas his approach that took him places. To go where May wanted togo—which was everywhere—one had to be willing to get lost, a terrifyingprospect to many blind people. To May, getting lost was thebest part. He told people, "I'm very curious. So getting lost doesn'tfeel 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 toldthem it was his curiosity, not his cane.

Weeks had passed since May had met Goodman and still he'd givenlittle thought to the doctor's offer. Every so often, Jennifer would askher husband for his thinking on the subject of new vision, and it wasat these times that May appreciated her most. There was no longingin her question, no subtext of urging him along. May confessed toJennifer that he hadn't thought much about Goodman's offer. Healso told her that life already felt good and busy and full. And that'show 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 histo-do list. He respected the import of Goodman's offer and knewthat he should give it the serious consideration it deserved. He beganto turn things over in his head.

He tried to imagine a life with vision. But his thoughts always returnedto his current life, his real life. He had risked everything onhis business, which was now in its most critical phase and demandedhis full attention; a single misstep could tear it from itsmoorings and drown the project. After two recent close calls duringsimilarly stressful periods, his marriage was now thriving and hopeful.

He was focused on raising his boys and being present for the momentsin their lives—especially the small ones—which alreadyseemed to fly past too quickly.

He tried to imagine what vision could offer. He could already govirtually wherever he chose—and loved the adventure of finding hisway. He could already do whatever he desired—sometimes betterthan the sighted. And he continued to believe that he saw Jenniferand his boys in the real sense of the word—the sense that speaks towhat it really means to know a person, what it means to connect toanother's soul.

Vision was not calling to May. He knew that the idea of a blindman refusing sight would strike most of the world as unthinkable.But he thought of it this way: What if a sighted person was offered anew sense? What if he was offered, say, the ability to foretell the future?At first, that prospect might seem thrilling. But if the personwas already leading a full and rich life, would he really want it? Mightit not disrupt an otherwise wonderful life? And what if it turned outto be something wholly different from what the person had bargainedfor? May wondered how many happy people would proceedif offered a permanent crystal ball or sonar or the ability to readminds. How many of them would say yes to a new sense? And that ishow May felt about vision. His life was already complete without it.And yet, during the breaks in his days, May found himself wonderingabout what it might be like to see. He might be touching oneof Jennifer's fabrics and think, "What would my favorite color be?"

Shooting hoops with his sons he might ask, "Would I recognize myboys right away?" At the neighborhood coffee shop where he lovedto listen to the lilting conversations and high-heeled clicks ofwomen, he wondered, "Would I still prefer blondes?"May continued to focus on his work and his family. This was notime to be distracted from what was most important. Still, crossingthe Golden Gate Bridge he might ponder, "What would I find beautiful?"Walking in the park he might ask himself, "What would look familiarto me?" Shaving in the bathroom he thought, "Would I looklike myself?"

And he wondered about the red hat.When he was a very young boy, just before his accident, his fatherhad taken him deer hunting, a mystical adventure that had requiredawakening before dawn, carrying weapons, and wearing abright red hat for visibility, one that could be seen from distances offorever. 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 hatin his mind; it was always just a hairsbreadth beyond his grasp—there but not there. And he asked himself, "Would I see that red hatif 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 theirbackyard. 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 aboutit?"

"I do think about it," May said. "Every time, I ask myself if visionwould 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 feellike I'm missing a thing."

For a minute neither of them said anything. Then Jennifer leanedover, 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 myboys right away?" At the neighborhood coffee shop where he lovedto listen to the lilting conversations and high-heeled clicks ofwomen, he wondered, "Would I still prefer blondes?"May continued to focus on his work and his family. This was notime to be distracted from what was most important. Still, crossingthe Golden Gate Bridge he might ponder, "What would I find beautiful?"Walking in the park he might ask himself, "What would look familiarto me?" Shaving in the bathroom he thought, "Would I looklike 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.