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BONUS FEATURE: Exclusive interview with Robert Kurson and Michael May
In his critically acclaimed bestseller Shadow Divers, Robert Kurson explored the depths of history, friendship, and compulsion. Now Kurson returns with another thrilling adventure–the stunning true story of one man’s heroic odyssey from blindness into sight.
Mike May spent his life crashing through. Blinded at age three, he defied expectations by breaking world records in downhill speed skiing, joining the CIA, and becoming a successful inventor, entrepreneur, and family man. He had never yearned for vision.
Then, in 1999, a chance encounter brought startling news: a revolutionary stem cell transplant surgery could restore May’s vision. It would allow him to drive, to read, to see his children’s faces. He began to contemplate an astonishing new world: Would music still sound the same? Would sex be different? Would he recognize himself in the mirror? Would his marriage survive? Would he still be Mike May?
The procedure was filled with risks, some of them deadly, others beyond May’s wildest dreams. Even if the surgery worked, history was against him. Fewer than twenty cases were known worldwide in which a person gained vision after a lifetime of blindness. Each of those people suffered desperate consequences we can scarcely imagine.
There were countless reasons for May to pass on vision. He could think of only a single reason to go forward. Whatever his decision, he knew it would change his life.
Beautifully written and thrillingly told, Crashing Through is a journey of suspense, daring, romance, and insight into the mysteries of vision and the brain. Robert Kurson gives us a fascinating account of one man’s choice to explore what it means to see–and to truly live.
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Robert Kurson earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, then a law degree from Harvard Law School. His award-winning stories have appeared in Rolling Stone, The New York Times Magazine, and Esquire, where he is a contributing editor. Crashing Through is based on Kurson’s 2006 National Magazine Award-winning profile in Esquire. He is the author of Shadow Divers, and he lives in Chicago. Visit the author’s website at www.robertkurson.com.
From the Hardcover edition.
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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,”
“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
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 ...
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