For 43 years, Mike May lived fearlessly as a blind man. Then he was offered
a chance at the greatest adventure of them all: the return of his eyesight.
The light hit Mike May like a rush of air, moving through and around him in a burst of white that quickly turned to colors and shapes and movement.
Can you see anything? his doctor asked.
Holy smokes! he said, breaking into a grin. I sure can.
After 43 years of blindness, May could see. A revolutionary new transplant surgery had actually worked.
The room&emdash;filled with May’s family, his doctors, a photographer from The Davis Enterprise and a crew from the TV show Dateline&emdash;burst into a buzz of joyous exclamations and happy tears while May’s brain worked furiously trying to identify the things around him. Having this strange and wonderful thing called vision was definitely going to be the greatest adventure of his life. Little did he know, it also would be one of the most difficult.
By all accounts, Mike May is an adventurer. Slim, gray-haired and plainly dressed, this Davis resident, husband and father of two has traveled the world, won Paralympic medals, launched successful businesses and been the focus of numerous TV programs, including the aforementioned Dateline, Good Morning America and a BBC documentary. And now he’s the subject of a newly released biography: Crashing Through: The True Story of Risk, Adventure, and the Man Who Dared To See by Esquire contributing editor Robert Kurson (Random House, $28.95). An audio version of the book is available, and a movie already is in the works.
May, 53, lost his sight at the age of 3, when he submerged a jar containing calcium carbide powder in water, triggering a violent explosion that nearly killed him.
Miraculously, after emergency surgery, 500 stitches and three months in the hospital, he returned home as precocious as ever. But his eyes were irreparably damaged. He’ll never see again, the doctors told his mother.
May didn’t let his hindered eyesight deter him from doing what he wanted. At school, he joined in kickball and football games. He even earned a spot on the crossing guard by demonstrating he could identify oncoming cars by sound alone.
As an adult, May became hooked on skiing and ended up winning, with his guide, Ron Salviolo, two gold medals in the 1982 World Winter Games (now known as the Paralympics) and three bronze medals in the ’84 games. He later set a world record for the fastest speed-skiing time (65 mph) for a blind man.
May also developed a Global Positioning System to help blind people navigate the streets of unfamiliar cities around the world. By 1999, his business, Sendero Group LLC, was on the cusp of success. He was living a full life, the life he’d always wanted.
Then he learned about the operation.
May had undergone three unsuccessful corneal transplants. After the third, he had been told definitively there was nothing else to try. But as he sat in the office of renowned San Francisco ophthalmologist Dan Goodman on Feb. 11, 1999, May learned there was new reason for hope. A relatively new stem cell transplant had successfully restored sight to people who’d become blind through a narrow list of circumstances, including chemical burns. Few ophthalmologists in the world had conducted the surgery and no one specialized in it, but Goodman had performed six of these procedures and believed May might be a good candidate.
Goodman first would transplant the exterior doughnut of an organ donor’s cornea, the stem cell portion, into May’s eye and scrape away May’s cornea to allow the daughter cells to begin growing. Then, four months later, a second surgery would replace May’s damaged cornea with a healthy one from a second donor. The process was delicate and complicated. There also were risks for May, including potentially serious side effects from the high doses of cyclosporine that would help prevent his body from rejecting the transplants. But if all went well, the two surgeries together would provide May with a working eye. (May had lost his other eye to an earlier infection.)
The surgeries went without a hitch, and May’s first moments of sight were glorious. He grinned at his wife. He stared at himself in the mirror, surprised by his height and the darkness of his beard. At home, seeing his two young sons for the first time, he marveled at the many different shades of blond in their hair, the different blues of their eyes. These first moments of seeing his family were precious, he recalls, but not earth-shattering. People always assume those were life-changing moments for me, and of course they were special. But the truth is, I already knew what my wife and kids looked like even when I was blind. I already knew them intimately.
More emotional was attending his first post-surgery UC Davis Picnic Day parade. Watching the bizarre barrage of colors, sounds and shapes brought him to tears. A unicyclist, a clown, a person playing a trombone, a float&emdash;all were strange and wonderful sights he longed to understand.
During the next few months, he set out to explore the world anew. He gazed at flowers, watched old home movies and played catch with his kids. He requested the window seat during flights to soak in the miniature landscapes below, and he visited many of his favorite places, such as the Golden Gate Bridge and Lake Tahoe. When he first stood atop a mountain at Kirkwood and gazed across the horizon, he was speechless.
It was hard to get ahold of the fact that I was â€˜in touch’ with something that was miles away. It was a strange feeling, too, to see the slopes and trees that were so familiar to me in my mind and yet I hadn’t literally seen them, he says.
Yet his first attempt at skiing by sight was disastrous. He could identify dark shapes but couldn’t determine whether they were actual skiers or simply shadows cast by skiers, the ski lift or bumps in the snow. After a few tries and numerous falls, he gave up, discouraged and exhausted.
Experiences like these convinced May that something was seriously wrong with his vision. Why did a rectangular box look just like a rectangular piece of paper? Why did stairs look like a series of stripes? Why were faces impossible to identify&emdash;even the faces of family members and friends? May underwent a battery of tests, which confirmed what he had suspected: The new eye was functioning fine, but his brain was not processing certain types of information.
Mike lost his sight at a time when his brain was still quite plastic and he was still learning to interpret the visual world, explains Ione Fine, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at the University of Washington, who led the team researching May’s vision problems. So when the lights went out, his neurons recolonized to process auditory and tactile information, which is what he needed to function as a blind person. When we looked at Mike’s MRI, the part of the brain used for vision responded very differently than a normal person’s. It was clear he’d never be able to fully use vision the way [people with sight] do.
Although May was deflated, he refused to give up.
I knew there had to be a way to do this that no one had thought of. So I started thinking of the options available to me. And I realized the more I could build up a catalog of information and situations, the faster I would be able to see, he says.
May was best at identifying objects that were familiar, so the more he could memorize characteristics of these objects or situations, the better he would be able to perceive what he was seeing. And by integrating certain tools he’d developed as a blind person, he could make that perception even more reliable.
Let’s say I’m at the airport looking for a restroom, he explains. I know to look for a square, blue plaque next to a door&emdash;so I’m using my vision. But then I might confirm that by using smells and sounds and by reading the Braille on the sign to make sure it’s the right room.
With years of practice, May’s method has paid off by allowing him to process visual information faster. On the other hand, he has learned that in some areas, the old methods still work better. He uses Braille or speech output technology (where text is read aloud to him via a synthesizer) to read. When he skis, he detunes his vision and relies more on a guide to help him identify obstacles. And he typically brings his guide dog or a cane if he’s walking through unfamiliar territory.
Some tasks, like driving, will never be a possibility for May. But in other cases, it has simply taken a bit of experimentation for him to find the best way to see the world. For example, he recently discovered he could watch his son’s baseball games better through the zoom lens of a camera, so he now videotapes all of the games.
Those who know him best say May hasn’t changed a bit since his surgery seven years ago.
I think Mike’s core values have remained absolutely unchanged since his surgery, says May’s longtime friend Bryan Bashin. He is just as intrepid with sight as before, just as curious, and he continues to seek out new adventures as always.
Jennifer, May’s wife of nearly 20 years and the mother of his sons, Wyndham, 13, and Carson, 15, agrees: It never ceases to amaze me how Mike wakes up positive every morning. Every day is a new possibility to him.
Perhaps what has kept May grounded during the ups and downs of regaining vision is his perspective that sight was never meant to be his salvation but simply another adventure to be experienced and absorbed. As he once told an audience, I didn’t do [the surgery] to see. I did it to see what seeing was. He still believes that is the meaning behind his story.
If you’re just sitting at home afraid to try things, you’re guaranteed to avoid hardships, May says. But if you’re really going for it, you will definitely encounter these things. You’re going to have bumps and bruises, but with that comes opportunity.