Sally’s far-sighted breakthrough
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