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'A complete sense of freedom': Once legally blind, Alberta man gets licence, buys dream car

Born legally blind, a pioneering surgery allowed Benalto, Alta. resident Mike Schickerowski to regain his sight, get his driver's license, and zip around his hometown of Benalto, Alta. in an electric-yellow Corvette.

Mike Schickerowski celebrates recovery from 'pioneering' surgery with Corvette in 'racing yellow'

This Albertan who is no longer legally blind after a surgery south of the border decided to go all out now that he can actually legally drive. 1:37

Mike Schickerowski says his mother, Stephanie Schickerowski, realized something was wrong with his vision when he was an infant.

At just 11 months, Mike couldn't see the family dog and was terrified of insects that flew past him. She recognized the signs of congenital nystagmus — a visual impairment that ran in the family.

  • Watch the video above to see Mike with his dream car after regaining his sight

For a while, the condition was managed with glasses. But as the years progressed, and doctors continued to troubleshoot Mike's options, the prognosis became discouraging.

His condition was severe. Mike was legally blind, and unlikely to improve or recover.

Schickerowski's condition was apparent from the time that he was about 11 months old; he had a hard time seeing the family dog and was frightened by insects. He says it is genetic and runs in his family. (Supplied by Angie Schickerowski)

"They basically gave me a pretty negative outlook," Mike told the Homestretch on July 24.

"It was going to be probably no public school ... and no sports and no driving for the rest of my life."

Four decades later, a stroke of luck — and a pioneering surgery — changed everything. 

Mike would regain his sight, get his driver's licence, and zip around his hometown of Benalto, Alta., in an electric-yellow Corvette.

Meeting the challenges

From the beginning, Mike says, he challenged the limitations that were forecast for his life. Meanwhile, from the sidelines, his mom cheered for his progress, and encouraged his resilience.

"I can't imagine what it was like for her to go through, seeing the suffering, the challenges, the struggles that I had. She was out there for me as a support to lean on," Mike said. 

"And I just pushed myself my whole life to never accept that this was going to slow me down; I just always wanted the best I possibly could get."

Counter to what had been predicted, Mike did attend public school and he did play sports — so well, in fact, that he became the captain of his high school football team. 

But the one challenge that Mike says he couldn't outmanoeuvre was the ability to drive.

"I had become very accustomed to not having [a licence]. But the burden always fell to my wife," Mike said. 

"And so, that really did bother me. There were a number of things I wanted to be able to do with my children, and I felt like I was missing out."

'I can now see so many common things'

In 2017, Mike discovered Dr. Robert Lingua, a surgeon with the Gavin Herbert Eye Institute in Irvine, Calif.

Lingua was developing treatments for congenital nystagmus, and Mike was an ideal candidate — with the exception of his age.

At 42, he was a bit of a risk. Children were typically preferred and better suited for the surgery.

"[The doctor] was concerned about my age being a problem, and he didn't know exactly how it would turn out," Mike said.

Schickerowski underwent a pioneering eye surgery in Irvine, Calif., that allowed him to gain both clarity and 'stereo vision.' (Supplied by Angie Schickerowski)

The surgeries improved Mike's eyesight dramatically, however, and he gained clarity and "stereo vision" — meaning his eyes work together, so he can experience 3-D.

He remembers seeing a flower for the first time in his doctor's office, and being transfixed by its depth, its shape.

He remembers going for dinner the night after surgery, and being mesmerized by a chicken finger.

He is fascinated by detail, and wants to count things like tiles — just because he can now distinguish what was once a blur, he says. 

"It's a level of clarity that was never possible before. I can now see so many common things that people take for granted, that they see on a daily basis," Mike said. 

"Simple things, like a menu board at McDonald's, or traffic signs obviously — even people's eyes. I really had trouble seeing somebody's eyes before."

A complete sense of freedom

In April 2019, Mike achieved what was once considered unimaginable, and got his learner's licence.

That August, Mike saw a Chevrolet Corvette — specifically, a 2017 Corvette Grand Sport in "racing yellow" — and says he just knew.

"That would be my first car, my dream car, a real beauty," Mike said.

This July, he passed his official road test. The car — and a sense of liberation, previously out of reach — are now his.

Mike with his wife, Angie Schickerowski, in front of the UCI Medical Center in Irvine, Calif. (Supplied by Angie Schickerowski.)

"It's amazing. It's a complete sense of freedom that I was always missing," Mike said.

"This gave me the opportunity for one-on-one time with the kids, or even just as a family, just to actually contribute in a way that I was never able to before."

As for the dream car that Mike acknowledges is a "cop magnet" for its racing design and bold colour, Mike says that he enjoys the Corvette's powerful punch, the spin of the tires. But he respects the rules of the road. 

He won't gamble what he has gained.

"I actually am very careful; I'm very respectful of the law, the safety measures," Mike said. "I didn't want to tempt fate to ruin this."

A Central Alberta man who was born legally blind - now has his driver's license. 44-year old Mike Schickerowski has always dreamed of being able to drive and now, he has a flashy car to drive around in. He joins us by phone from his home in Benalto to tell us how he got to this point. 8:03

With files from The Homestretch

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