A Doctor's Kindness Gives Homeless Inventor A Second Chance

Jan 27, 2013
Originally published on January 27, 2013 5:34 pm

In California in the early 1980s, a cracked tooth sent Mike Williams to the dentist's office.

When Williams asked to see the tooth, the dentist said he had a mirror but that there was no camera or anything to show people the insides of their mouths. So, Williams invented one: the first intraoral camera.

His invention was a big success, and it led to other medical technology ventures that made him millions of dollars. Williams' career as an inventor and entrepreneur took off, but it wouldn't last.

"The real estate market destroyed a lot of my financial capabilities, and my home went into foreclosure [in 2009]," Williams tells NPR's Robert Smith. "I had a group that defrauded me in Florida, took about $2.5 million from me in a scam, and it just kept going and kept going and I couldn't stop it."

His world was crumbling. Then his wife asked for a divorce.

"I packed my car, told my kids to come and get what they wanted and I basically hit the streets," he says.

The successful inventor had become homeless.

For a while, Williams lived out of his car and kept a journal on a laptop. Once he fell behind on the car payments, he took shelter in a dumpster. The situation hit him hard.

"I found out that I was really nothing, and that was very hard for me to grasp; the fact that no one wanted me around," he says. "I was something nobody wanted to see or be involved in, and that crushed me."

One night last August, Williams was sleeping in a Sacramento park when two men began kicking and beating him. They beat him until he passed out, taking his belongings and leaving him with severe injuries.

Williams walked to the emergency room. He didn't have health insurance, and he says he waited for hours before seeing a doctor.

"Little did I know that that beating would be the beating that changed my life," he says.

A Second Chance

Williams' injuries eventually led him to Dr. Jong Chen.

He went to Chen complaining of pain in his lower abdomen; it turns out he suffered prostate damage that required surgery. Before the operation, the two men struck up a conversation, and Chen asked him how he became homeless and what he did before that.

"And I started telling him the story," Williams says. "And I said, 'As a matter of fact, I'm the inventor of that little wire catheter you're using.' "

Chen thought it was a waste that an inventor like Williams was on the street, so he devised a way to help him. He later called Williams at a local Salvation Army shelter and asked to take him out to breakfast.

"He said 'I want you to bring your patents. I want you to bring whatever you're working on,' " Williams says.

They went to breakfast, and Williams talked of about his idea to invent a secure, safe place for the homeless and people that are displaced in society.

"I want to give them a safe place to live," he says he told Chen.

Williams came up with the idea while resting in one of the only safe places he could find: a dumpster. He'd even drawn up the plans for a self-contained survival pod — a 6-foot by 6-foot structure with a single bed and a chemical toilet.

Chen signed on, and they formed a company to start working on a prototype pod. They also envision other applications — FEMA could use them for emergency housing, and airports could rent them to travelers with long layovers.

All of that got started with an unusually generous contribution.

"To me, a patient is a patient, no matter what kind of status [they] have," Chen says. "They need the help, [and] we can give him the help."

Chen got Williams out of the shelter and back on his feet. He helped him get an apartment, new clothes and treated him to meals when the two would meet.

Williams says he is humbled by the second chance he's been given by the generosity of one man, and says it's people like Chen who are truly helping people.

"[Dr. Chen] is truly an amazing man," Williams says. "I'm just telling you, [he] is the example for America."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

This past week, one of our producers read a story in the Los Angeles Times that seemed almost like a movie pitch. Fade in - interior - California, early 1980s. Mike Williams is an inventor without an invention. A cracked tooth has sent him to the dentist's office, and he asked if he can see it.

MIKE WILLIAMS: Don't you have any cameras or anything to really show people their teeth? And he goes, no, no, we don't need that. We've got a mirror. And I'm going, well, how are you going to show me my teeth then? And he goes, you know what, Mike, that's an excellent idea.

SMITH: Eureka. Mike Williams set about inventing the first intraoral camera, and it was a big success. From there, he formed a company and sold it.

WILLIAMS: For about a million dollars.

SMITH: Other medical inventions followed.

WILLIAMS: And from there, my career took off. One day, David Letterman called me and said, I just read about your little camera. Can you come on down to Rockefeller Center in New York and bring your cameras to the studios and set them up?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

DAVID LETTERMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, tonight, for the first time anywhere, the Late Night Monkey Cam Mobile Unit, Zippy. Paul?

SMITH: I forgot about the monkey cam. The monkey cam was amazing.

WILLIAMS: Yup.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LATE SHOW WITH DAVID LETTERMAN")

LETTERMAN: Ladies and gentlemen, I think it's easy to see that this technology has limitless applications.

SMITH: Mike Williams was successful, appreciated, in demand. But just like in a movie, it wouldn't last. Jump cut to the 2000s.

WILLIAMS: The real estate market destroyed a lot of my financial capabilities, and my home went into foreclosure. I had a group that defrauded me in Florida, took about $2.5 million from me in a scam. And it just kept going and kept going, and I couldn't stop it. Just everything crumbled. And then my wife asked for a divorce. And when she asked for a divorce, I packed my car and told my kids to come and get what they wanted, and I basically hit the streets.

SMITH: Mike Williams, successful inventor, was now homeless. For a while, he lived out of his car, kept a journal on a laptop. But once he fell behind on his car payments, he took shelter in a dumpster.

WILLIAMS: I found out that I was really nothing, and that was very hard for me to grasp, the fact that nobody wanted me around. They really didn't want me sleeping next to their cars or in their backyards or out in the parks. That I was something nobody wanted to see or could - even be involved in. And that crushed me.

SMITH: And I understand that one night, you were sleeping in the park and - well, tell me the story.

WILLIAMS: Well, this particular night, I was roaming the streets of Sacramento. And down on the capital city state mall, there's a very large rose garden there. And I thought, man, this would really be a nice place to just hang out. So I hid underneath the fountain of the rose garden. I had my laptop in a bag. And about 1 o'clock in the morning, I was woken up with two guys that were kicking me and trying to pull me out and grabbing me. And I fought as best I could, but they kicked me so hard that I passed out. They gave me severe hernias and destroyed my prostate.

And I laid there. I just laid there and cried. And, of course, I lost my laptop. I lost all of my notes and all of my pictures from the streets and whatever. I got up, and I walked to Sutter emergency room. And I waited there for 19 hours. I was a homeless guy, didn't look too good, didn't smell too good, and in a lot of pain and no insurance. And finally, they took me in. And little did I know that that beating was truly the beating that changed my life.

SMITH: It changed his life because Mike Williams' injury would eventually lead him to Dr. Jong Chen.

DR. JONG CHEN: He come into my office complaining all of the pain in the lower abdomen.

SMITH: Before Dr. Chen performed surgery on Williams' damaged prostate, the two struck up a conversation.

WILLIAMS: He asked me, he says, well, what did you do with your life? How did you become homeless? And I started telling him the story. And I said, as a matter of fact, I'm the inventor of that little wire catheter that you're using.

CHEN: And I asked about his education background. I said, well, what a waste - this gentleman, you know, walking on the street.

SMITH: What a waste. Dr. Chen saw a way to help Mike Williams get off the street.

WILLIAMS: And he called me at the shelter one day, and he asked me out for breakfast.

CHEN: He almost cried, you know? I said, oh, go ahead. It'll be on me.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: So he said, I want you to bring your patents. I want you to bring whatever you're working on. And so he picked me up. We went to McDonald's. And he said, well, what are you doing now? What's your new invention? And I told him I want to invent for the first time a secure, safe place for homeless people and people that are displaced in our society. I want to give them a safe place to live.

SMITH: Mike Williams came up with this idea while resting in one of the only safe places he could find: a dumpster. He'd drawn up plans for a self-contained survival pod.

WILLIAMS: It's six feet wide, six feet tall. It's got a single bed in it. It's got a chemical toilet.

SMITH: And Dr. Chen signed on. He agreed to form a company with Mike Williams and start creating a prototype pod. They envision other applications too. FEMA could use these shelters for emergency housing. Airports could rent them to travelers with long layovers. And it all got started with an unusually generous contribution.

CHEN: To me, a patient is a patient no matter what kind of status you have. They need the help, we can give him the help.

WILLIAMS: Dr. Chen not only took me out of the shelter, he took me downtown and got me a really nice apartment. He took me to Macy's and bought me all new clothes, a whole new wardrobe. He still treats me for free. He just can't do enough. Truly an amazing, amazing man.

SMITH: So, Mr. Williams, this is an amazing opportunity. Very few people get even the first chance that you got to invent something and build a company around it. You've been given another chance with a new business partner, a new idea, a new start on life. How do you personally change the way you approach the world?

WILLIAMS: With humility and prayer every day.

SMITH: You weren't humble before?

WILLIAMS: I was humble, but I was rich. And I think that's probably what the problem is with our leaders, is that once you have a separation of class and you're rich, you can be humble, you can say all the right things, you can pretend like you care, but are these people really the ones that are pulling people out of the streets, give them a second chance, give them a job, loving them the way Dr. Chen love me because they're rich. And I'm just telling you that Dr. Chen is the example for America.

SMITH: That's inventor Mike Williams who, along with Dr. Jon Chen, is developing a portable housing pod for the homeless. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.