A man’s curiosity led him into the operating room to undergo a procedure that could restore his vision or take his life. After unwrapping the bandage, he could see the world again after 43 years of blindness. But was the world what he expected, or was it all just a big disappointment?
Eight years after his surgery, Michael May spoke on Tuesday night at the Davis Musical Theatre Company about his experiences before and after regaining his eyesight. The lecture was hosted by Explorit Science Center.
“I do remember having difficult times early in school,” he said. “There were a lot of bumps and bruises in figuring how to go about life, but I dealt with them one thing at a time.“
At 3 years old, May was blinded due to a calcium-carbide chemical explosion. While other children were learning their ABCs, May was learning how to live life without sight.
But despite the difficulties, he never blamed anything on the explosion. With his parents‘ encouragement, May adopted a positive attitude and believed that “there’s always a way.“
May played flag football in elementary school and participated in intramural soccer as an undergraduate at UC Davis. He graduated with a degree in political science in 1976 and went on to open four companies, break a world record in skiing as a blind person, work for the CIA, and meet three U.S. presidents.
One of the greatest highlights of his life was starting a family with his wife, Jennifer. Although he had never visually seen Jennifer and his two sons, May said that he had been able to see them all his life.
“I saw my wife when I met her in 1984,” he said. “And I knew exactly what my kids looked like because I changed their diapers from day one.”
May was completely content with his life and had no thoughts of ever recovering his vision. He had undergone corneal transplant as a child, but when the bandages were taken off he still could not see.
Instead of viewing it as something depressing, May saw it as motivation.
“If something doesn’t work out for you in life, find a way to work around it,” he said. “You have to find some component of what you do to make you stronger.“
While surgery held the possibility of regaining vision, it also posed unforeseeable and deadly consequences.
There were only 20 documented cases of vision restoration over the past 1,000 years, May said. Of those who regained vision, some were driven into depression or suicide due to their unmet expectations.
“You’d think it’s some type of miracle to get your vision back,” he said. “People expected their lives to turn perfect after the surgery – but that’s not the way it happens.“
The two important things to consider before undergoing are to have low expectations and to have the ability to embrace change, he said.
May was told there was only a 50 percent chance of success, but he decided to take the risk.
“I went ahead because of curiosity,” he said. “If I’m a pioneer and I explore, then why would I resist having this surgery?“
In 1999 at age 46, May received a stem cell transplant performed by San Francisco ophthalmologist Daniel Goodman. A few months later, he received a corneal transplant from donor eyes – one of the corneas came from someone involved in a motorcycle accident.
May did not expect to see directly after the surgery, but immediately after undoing the bandages he was able to see his wife for the first time.
He recalled that his first words were, “Holy smokes!”
Since he was blinded at a young age, May had to relearn how to connect what he was seeing with what he knew from his other senses. It was often very frustrating and even depressing, he said.
“All of a sudden, I embarked on this whole new world of exploring things one thing at a time,” he said.
Although he held a world-record as the fastest blind skier at 65 mph, skiing with vision was a very different experience, he said.
For the first year or two, skiing made him really frustrated as he couldn’t tell if something dark was a ski-lift shadow, a person or tree.
“The real key to making vision work was integration – that means integrating the visual tool with audio and tactile tools,” he said. “I had to figure out what vision was good for and what it wasn’t good for.“
May has good color and motion perception, but has trouble with seeing details. His detail perception either atrophied over time or never fully developed, he said, so reading print or recognizing faces is very difficult.
“I would have to be 2 feet away to see what you see 100 ft away,” he said. “I’m the best person for seeing what people look like because I can’t see details or wrinkles. I’m your best admirer!”
Although he now has partial vision in his right eye, he still sometimes relies on reading Braille, guidance from his dog, and gadgets produced by his Davis-based company, Sendero Group.
May discussed the products made by Sendero Group to help blind or visually-impaired individuals function in everyday life.
“The GPS technology that I helped spawn in 1994 is now ubiquitous,” May said. “I think it’s my job to be an ambassador of what’s possible and to help stimulate people in a positive direction.“
May is a motivational speaker and has been featured on shows such as “Fox News“ and “Dateline NBC.“ Davis locals who attended his lecture said they felt inspired after his speech.
“I think he’s a remarkable man,” said Linda Ziskind, wife of Lou Ziskind, director of Explorit Science Center. “It’s very inspirational because sometimes we get so discouraged when things don’t go right. But if there’s a challenge, [May] meets it. He looks for a change, and I know many of us can’t do that.“
Students at Davis Senior High who attended his lecture also gained a new perspective.
“He taught me that everyone has a challenge in his or her life,” said Maryam Hosseini, junior at Davis Senior High. Hosseini came to the U.S. from Iran eight months ago. “His challenge was life without vision and my challenge is learning English.“
Before ending the night, May showed a nine-minute video of his experiences and left the audience with a positive message.
“There are struggles and depression and low times – but think of the productive way out,” he said. “It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.“
THUY TRAN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.