Sally’s far-sighted break­through

New Zealand Woman’s Weekly - - CONTENTS - Julie Ja­cob­son

Sally’s far-sighted break­through

As a child Sally Brit­nell was teased for her thick, bot­tle-like glasses. At sec­ondary school she was told she would never be a nurse, a ca­reer she des­per­ately wanted to pur­sue.

Today, Sally is to­tally blind in one eye and has had on­go­ing is­sues with the other. She’s a long-time St John vol­un­teer − 24 years − and is also an award-win­ning nurs­ing lec­turer and aca­demic, whose new­ly­de­vel­oped app aims to more ac­cu­rately as­sess the weight of chil­dren need­ing re­sus­ci­ta­tion.

It hasn’t, Sally tells, been an easy road, ad­mit­ting she’s her own worst en­emy.

“I am quite self-crit­i­cal, I place enor­mous ex­pec­ta­tions on my­self, I feel I have to be bet­ter at do­ing what­ever I’m do­ing be­cause of my low vi­sion.“

Born three months pre­ma­ture, Sally was given oxy­gen at birth and de­vel­oped retinopa­thy, a con­di­tion where un­wanted blood ves­sels grow on the retina. By the time she was 15 the sporty teenager − a keen skier and scuba diver – was com­pletely blind in her right eye.

At 17 Sally was told to for­get her dreams of be­com­ing a nurse be­cause her low vi­sion ruled her out. “That went down like a lead bal­loon. So I went off on my OE,” she says.

Once back home, and still un­de­cided as to what she wanted to do, Sally put her sport­ing back­ground to use and gained a Diploma in Re­cre­ation Man­age­ment. It was dur­ing that pe­riod of study that she suf­fered her first reti­nal de­tach­ment.

“I skied into a rock,” she tells. “I had three lots of surgery to reat­tach my retina – first was laser, then they put gas in and thirdly oil, to hold the retina in place.”

There was no guar­an­tee the surgery would make her sight bet­ter. The hope was that she wouldn’t lose any more. &

Her con­tin­ued de­sire to work • in a health-re­lated field led Sally to en­rol in a nurs­ing de­gree, and she spent sev­eral years nurs­ing in pri­vate hos­pi­tals and a GP clinic be­fore go­ing back to univer­sity to study com­puter sci­ence. In 2004 she re­turned to her first pas­sion, this time at Star­ship Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal where she worked in the emer­gency de­part­ment for eight years.

How­ever, vi­sion prob­lems con­tin­ued to plague Sally. She de­vel­oped glau­coma, there were high-pres­sure is­sues – re­quir­ing a hole to be made in the edge of the iris to let the pres­sure equalise − and she had to have cataract surgery.

But the pro­ce­dures weren’t with­out com­pli­ca­tions.

“The treat­ment for high pres­sure causes ex­tra light to en­ter my eye and bounce around caus­ing dis­tor­tions when I look up or straight ahead. And af­ter the cataract surgery the glare that de­vel­oped with the glau­coma wors­ened.”

By 2011 Sally could no longer drive at night, mean­ing get­ting to and from Star­ship for shifts be­came a prob­lem. She spent the next year work­ing as an in­fec­tion con­trol nurse spe­cial­ist be­fore re­turn­ing to Auck­land Univer­sity of Tech­nol­ogy

(AUT) to teach nurs­ing.

As much as she loved her new job, the 45-year-old, who some­times needs to wear sun­glasses in­side if the light is too bright, con­tin­ued to strug­gle with glare and closeup vi­sion. She feared her abil­ity to read a com­puter screen and text­books, and to mark student exam pa­pers was ebbing away.

She wor­ried, too, about los­ing her job, her as­pi­ra­tions for the fu­ture and about not be­ing able to pay her mort­gage.

“I got re­ally down. Part of it was me not want­ing to ac­cept that I have this is­sue, along with ex­pect­ing that I could work seven days a week and be able to read for hours on end as I had done in the past.”

Cue a hes­i­tant ap­proach to Blind & Low Vi­sion NZ (for­merly the Blind Foun­da­tion), who pro­vided a coun­sel­lor – “she’s been a huge help” – and a raft of prac­ti­cal as­sis­tance, in­clud­ing a CCTV which projects text from a book onto a screen, com­puter soft­ware, mini elec­tronic mag­ni­fiers and new of­fice light­ing.

The tide con­tin­ued to turn for Sally. In Oc­to­ber, the team she was lead­ing won a teach­ing ex­cel­lence award for in­no­va­tion in their work with first-year nurs­ing stu­dents.

And if that wasn’t enough, Sally also com­pleted her PhD in com­put­ing and math­e­mat­ics. This in­cluded de­sign­ing, de­vel­op­ing and test­ing a smart­phone app to es­ti­mate the weight of chil­dren dur­ing re­sus­ci­ta­tion − to help cal­cu­late doses of med­i­ca­tion if needed and equip­ment size − from an im­age or pho­to­graph. Sally’s also cur­rently help­ing to pro­mote Blind & Low Vi­sion NZ’s #AltTex­tForAll cam­paign, which en­cour­ages peo­ple up­load­ing im­ages on­line to in­clude “alt text” (al­ter­na­tive text) to make in­for­ma­tion con­tained in the im­ages more ac­ces­si­ble to screen read­ers.

In the face of these ac­com­plish­ments, she is slowly learn­ing to be less harsh on her­self. “I use a white cane at night,” Sally tells. “I have been very re­luc­tant to bring it out be­cause I’m wor­ried about be­ing judged... but in terms of safety I re­alised it was prob­a­bly a good thing.

It was the same stop­ping driv­ing. I was think­ing, ‘Oh my God, what am I giv­ing up?’ But when I started think­ing about it in terms of safety − other peo­ple’s and my own − it clicked.

“It’s hard. If you run out of some­thing at home, you can’t just get in the car and go to the su­per­mar­ket. My dad is sick and if I want to visit him that’s three or four buses or a $90 taxi.”

She points out that the vari­abil­ity of low vi­sion – her sight can change day to day – means her needs con­stantly change. “But [some­thing] I was told re­cently has stuck with me − it’s not about you be­ing more re­silient, it’s about you feel­ing like this is nor­mal and mov­ing for­ward.”

Clock­wise from top: Sally loves her work at AUT; she’s a St John vol­un­teer vet­eran; get­ting out into the great out­doors at Mt Cook and Tas­man Glacier in 2016; and Paris in 2004. HOW SHE’S TURNED HER DREAMS INTO RE­AL­ITY

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