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. And 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 narrowing 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 blue-colored 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 absolutely 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.