How Having Surgery for a Hole in My Retina Led to Teaching Myself Adobe Xd Yesterday
May 27, 2021
I’ve known since I was four years old that I’m at high risk for losing my sight. During a paediatrician’s visit, my mom asked my paediatrician to take a quick look at her eyes because she thought she might need new glasses. After taking a quick look at her eyes with a retinnoscope (that handheld instrument with a light that doctors look through to see the inside of your eye) he said:
“Don’t move. Don’t sneeze. I’m calling your husband and we’re taking you to Toronto General Hospital.”
My mom’s retinas were partially detached. Her left eye only had a few attached nerve fibres left. If she’d sneezed, picked up anything, or moved suddenly she would have definitely gone blind in her left eye, and made her right eye way worse. After a week in Toronto General she became one of the first people in Canada to have laser surgery on both eyes at once.
It was a long recovery time spanning many months with home care nursing, different types of eye drops several times a day, and checkups with her eye surgeon. During that time, the eye specialists also checked my eyes. I’d inherited a genetic disorder that causes blue sclera — a transparency and thinning of the collagen fibres of the sclera in the eye. This put me at high risk for severe near-sightedness and detached retinas.
I was taught the warning signs of retinal detachment, including auras, flashes of light, suddenly seeing “floaters” — little specs like small bugs or dust over top of everything, vision getting foggy or having a “curtain” of grey or black close in. They warned me to be careful avoiding getting hit in the head with balls when playing with friends, and that if I ever got hit in the head, or fell down hard. Even if I didn’t bump my head I had to get a doctor to check my retinas.
We moved to New Zealand the year after my mom’s surgery. My father was from there, and the climate and pace of life would be much better for my mom’s eye health. Lifting heavy things — like shovelling snow — can be bad for people who have had detached retinas because heavy lifting causes increased eye pressure. Also the focus on a balanced lifestyle and cleaner food supply are much better for overall health. My mom still had her sight, but lost her night vision and was very sensitive to bright light. She could still drive, but only during daylight hours.
photo caption: The author riding a pony at Discovery School in Whitby, Wellington Region, New Zealand. I’d hid my glasses for the photo. I’m wearing a hand knit wool cardigan my Nana made me. She taught me to knit when I moved to Aotearoa New Zealand. She was my first “art and design teacher”.
Soon after moving to Wellington, New Zealand I saw a wonderful ophthalmologist who gave me my first pair of glasses. He was extremely British, had been knighted, and his office was so posh, interesting, and comfortable — less like a doctor’s office and more like a barrister’s. He was also very kind and good with kids. So even though I wasn’t completely happy with needing glasses, he helped me feel better and a bit less scared.
Every year, sometimes more frequently I saw an eye surgeon, got a new, thicker pair of glasses, and was reminded of the signs of retinal detachment. When I got recruited to my primary school’s netball team a year earlier than was typical (I’m tall) the teachers’ were reminded of my eye condition, and told to take me to the emergency room if I fell hard or was hit in the head. (For readers in Canada and the US, netball is totally awesome, and I really miss it. It’s kind of like basketball with no dribbling, lots of quick passing, and no backboard on the net.)
We moved back to Canada at the start of middle school. I had a new eye surgeon to see every year. When I was 13, my glasses prescription was so strong that I needed “indexed” lenses so I wasn’t wearing coke bottles. That big “E” on the eye chart just wasn’t there without glasses. On an Outdoors club winter camping trip in grade nine, my glasses froze up during a snow storm on the 4km hike across frozen lakes back to the lodge in -35 degrees Celsius (-31 Fahrenheit) temperatures. My glasses were so frozen solid that I couldn’t see through them. I ended up taking them off and following the blurry red shape in front of me that was a grade 13 student.
There was no way I was going to let that happen again! I was on the executive of the Outdoors club, and on the xc ski team. I was looking forward to five years of trips — including more winter ones, as well as xc ski races and marathons. As soon as I got back from that winter trip, I got my mom to make a contact lenses appointment. My ophthalmologist gave the green light to my getting contacts as long as I also took breaks. Given how active I was, the added peripheral vision might even help me avoid getting injured. Yeah!! No more glasses! He also didn’t see any retinal changes. Also very awesome — but being 14, I was a bit more thrilled about ditching the glasses.
Photo caption: The author at the trailhead in Killarney Provincial Park in grade 10. It was a great Outer’s Club trip, and because I had contact lenses the 24 hour huge rain storm wasn’t an issue.
Near the end of high school my mom’s retinas partially detached again. This time even with surgery again, she was legally blind in her left eye and visually impaired in her right. My mom now needed a white cane, and couldn’t drive. She had a 25 year perfect driving record. So when she went in to turn in her licence, the clerk looked at my mom’s record on her computer screen, looked back at my mom (with her white cane), looked at her screen again, and said “Are you sure you need to do this?”. She did, but had the feeling that the clerk would rather my mom be driving than others who’d had to surrender their license.
I was concerned about my mom because despite her sense of direction she loved to drive and get out into the rural parts of Southern Ontario. That anxiety about eventually losing my sight got worse.
Then during my second year of university, my new ophthalmologist in Calgary saw some changes in my retina. I started having to have checkups more frequently. At the start of my fourth year there was a tiny new hole in my right retina. By the end of that year it had gotten a little bigger. I’d also developed migraines.
On a Saturday in November of my final year at the University of Calgary, I had an aura with flashing lights and a bad headache. There was no way to tell if this was my retina detaching or the start of a really bad migraine with my first visual migraine aura. My partner rushed to me my family doctor’s office because it was only a five minute drive — closer than the nearest hospital. I was lucky. My retina wasn’t detaching. It was “just” a severe migraine.
My ophthalmologist had me come in for a checkup soon after. That’s when I heard the sentence I’d been both dreading and expecting since I was four. “You need retinal surgery.” Since my retina had been weakening, and I couldn’t rely on typical signs of retinal detachment surgery needed to be asap. There was no waiting until I graduated from my double degree program in April.
My surgery was scheduled for the start of my last term in January. I had to reduce my course load to the absolute minimum. In a meeting with my academic advisor we worked out a plan so I could graduate with both four year degrees: a BA in Geography and a BA in Social Anthropology. I wouldn’t be allowed to carry more than five pounds for 10–12 weeks afterwards — even in a backpack. This was before digital journal articles, eBooks, and scanned archival materials were standard. I had to reduce eye strain — so needed to limit using microfiche readers. Sadly, I dropped my senior year-long geography independent research course — “Irish immigration to Canada as a result of the 1846/47 potato famine.”, along with Visual Anthropology, and two other courses.
The surgery was a success (though really, really scary, and done when I was awake!). Though I still had severe near-sightedness, and have extra “floaties” in my vision from scar tissue, I didn’t loose my sight, and just have to wear contacts or glasses when I drive. I finished my courses, managed to deal with not being able to be active for three months, and moved back to Thunder Bay to finish the science degree I started at Lakehead University in my first year of university, and to continue on to a career in teaching.
I was supposed to receive my two parchments from U Calgary in the mail that fall, but they never arrived. It turned out that I was one course short for each degree. I could take the courses at Lakehead and have them transferred back to U Calgary. Finding a geography course that would work was fairly easy. Lakehead is known for focusing on the environment and the outdoors. Plus the geography course could be just about any 2nd to 4th year one.
The Social Anthropology course would be tricky though. At the time the University of Calgary had many different specialized degrees including: social anthropology, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, a couple different degrees in the Archeology department, Museum Studies, and a Linguistics department with even more programs. The Social Anthropology program at UC was rigorous (and awesome!). Upper year courses almost always required primary archival and/or “real world” research. (If you’re in UX research you likely have an idea of it.) The course I was missing was from a specific group of upper year social anthropology ethnography courses — not material culture, physical anthropology or archeology. Lakehead had a small anthropology department with limited course offerings, some only scheduled in alternating years.
In spring/summer term of my second year at Lakehead, an upper year ethnography course was being offered. It was the full 12 week-term, while most other courses were either the first or the last six weeks of term. To be eligible for student funding I had to be full-time with a minimum of three courses. I’d need two other six week courses. The few science courses were all off campus fieldwork ones, so I looked for electives. One of the art professors had little pictures she’d drawn of her goldfish posted around campus advertising her coloured pencil drawing art course. I love drawing, but had never taken a visual arts credit, so I chose that for the last six weeks of spring term. While registering for the drawing course, I saw a “Computer Art I” listed for the first six weeks of spring term. I’d done web and printed graphics design (in MS Paint, and Word) while working in the education computer lab, so that sounded interesting. Awesome! I’d be doing art while finishing the last course for my Social Anthropology degree, and enjoying the very long summer days up North. Yeah!
Then, two weeks before spring term, the ethnography course was cancelled. I didn’t have a summer job, and was already approved for student funding for spring term. I needed three courses. So I picked up Computer Art II — still not having a precise idea of what either computer art course would actually involve. Little did I know how useful those “because I just needed credits in spring/summer term” would be.
Computer Art I was held in the brand new computer lab in the engineering building. The instructor was a professional graphic artist who shared her experience and knowledge. The course was focused on learning how to use Adobe Photoshop from a more technical side to produce graphic design work. We learned about dpi for printed work vs the web, layers, pixels, fonts, white space, filters, … basically a combination of Photoshop 101 and graphic design 101.
I loved it — even all the hours getting something in the exact pixel — and earned an A in the course. After all, I’d been the girl in primary school who needed her coloured pencils to go back in the exact same place in the box so the marks on the inside of the lid would match. There’s also something about growing up with a parent with vision loss that makes you appreciate putting things in a precise exact right place (and never, ever, switching the cayenne pepper and cinnamon on the spice rack!).
Computer Art II was more focused on creating art works, and applying the principals of art with Adobe Photoshop. We also got to use the newest version of Photoshop. Well, new for Lakehead. It had been released in February the year before. The course was more geared to second and third year visual arts majors with art history coursework. But even without that experience, I loved the course and still was able to get a B. I also got a B in the coloured pencil drawing course — even through that was the first studio drawing course I’d ever taken.
Regrettably, I no longer have the files from my computer art courses, but I do have a few of the sketches from the coloured pencil drawing course.
Caption: Watercolour pencil sketch of the beach by the fire bunkhouse in Red Lake Ontario. Drawn as an exercise for the coloured pencil drawing course, from a photo taken several years earlier. A big black Labrador dog was keeping a little girl from running into the lake._
Caption: Blue marble on tissue paper and glass square. One of the techniques exercises from my coloured pencil course. This blue marble took about 12 hours, and multiple sittings to do. The technique is “burnishing” where the artist uses a white pencil or special burnishing pencil to go over a layer of coloured pencil. Then the next layer of coloured pencil is added on top of the burnishing. The process is repeated to get a very deep colour with almost a 3D effect, and can be used to show reflections. The studio had rectangular lamps overhead.
Over the years since summer I first learned Adobe Photoshop, I kept on using the skills I learned in those two computer art courses. When I started privately tutoring special ed and maths and sciences students in spring 2001, (I was still in university) I was able to put together a quick professional looking brochure for parents. That was the start of my first and now former career as a special education academic coach and eventually also an adaptive educational technology specialist.
I was part-time self employed from 2001 until I moved my practice to Toronto in fall 2012. This meant that I also had various contract jobs to pay the bills. Those computer art courses came in handy many times - like the time I got an interview for one job because the hiring manager wanted to know how I did that “box design thing” in my resume header. It was an interview for a contract position teaching computer and career skills to adults with physical disabilities from workplace injuries. I got the job.
Along the way, I created my own marketing materials for my private practice, and special summer programs including websites, brochures, and even calendar magnets for family’s fridges in 2017. Sometimes I’d use Wordpress or other hosting sites built in templates, then tweak the design/html/css. Other times — especially with printed materials — I’d start from scratch. The business side of running a business wasn’t always fun — Quickbooks was useful, but not pretty (and for whatever reason I hadn’t discovered Xero) — but I always enjoyed graphic and web design, and doing it myself saved me tons of money.
Caption: Postcard sized magnetic calendar for 2017
Using the skills my computer art instructors taught me, particularly the graphic designer, I picked up Adobe Spark, used Adobe Stock photos for marketing, and taught myself a bit of Adobe Illustrator, Final Cut, and iMovie. But it was all not my career main focus. I really liked helping teens and young adults with anxiety, depression, dyslexia and other learning disabilities, giftedness, adhd, concussions, those recovering from major illnesses, and high level student athletes. As more students had their own phones and mobile devices I became an adaptive technology specialist — recommending, setting up, and teaching students how to use their devices to support their learning styles and needs.
I also fell in love with the Apple ecosystem’s UX/UI and physical design, especially the streamlined, built in accessibility features, and the family and privacy controls. I got and set up an iPhone 7 plus for my mom — the woman who until several years ago still had the ‘rotary dial’ tv we got used in the mid-1980s, no cable tv, and hadn’t used a computer since she retired in 1997. She now does a lot of her banking on her phone, text messages — with tons of emojis, and has watched hockey games on it. But she still calls me to help her go to “www.thatpageIwant.ca” because when she goes to Safari she can’t get rid of “www.theLastpageIvisited.com”.
But the mental health crisis in teens and young adults was increasingly worsening. I was getting burned out. I had been stalked by a parent with psychosis — who found me even after I moved across Toronto. I was kicked and punched by an elementary student having a three hour panic attack and wearing hiking boots — and was injured so badly that I was black and blue for two months. The adaptive technology side wasn’t as challenging as it had been in 2012–2015. It was the same workflow with every student. The graphic and web design part was still fun and there was always something new to learn — but it was an “extra” to the career. I was also tired of my physical safety being at risk, working alone, with a different schedule than most other adults my age, and not having a workplace to go to. (Yes, this was pre-covid.)
In spring 2019, I decided to leave the education field. I didn’t have a solid idea of what was next, but knew I needed to not be self-employed again, to work with an awesome team of people, to be creative and constantly learning, and to have a consistent income. Being me, I also need to be helping — but without being in any human services field. I’d started to reconnect with New Zealand after the Christchurch massacres (that story will likely be future article). Just being curious, I got in touch with Massey University’s overseas student recruitment. — “Borderless at Massey”. Cameron was (and still is) amazing. I decided on a new career in urban planning and was able to start in a postgraduate program in July 2019 — even though all my NZ citizenship documents and NZ student funding didn’t come though until the end of term. (Aotearoa New Zealand doesn’t just rock at beating covid!)
Though I greatly enjoyed the first planning course — History of Town Planning in New Zealand — I realised that I didn’t want to deal with so much legislation and red tape in my next career. I’d had enough of that helping parents navigate special education supports. I did like the technical computer aspect though. Also tech involves a lot of teamwork and you can advance without having to be the lone person in charge of everything.
I’m skipping over 2020 (don’t we all wish we could really do that?) — except to say that I got covid early on followed by over nine months of frequent, severe, days long migraines — all while four buildings right next to mine were being demolished and a condo was (still is) being built. The pile driving was about a 2.0–2.5 on the earthquake scale. … (There’s definitely at least one more article there!)
So now I’m in fall term at Massey University in the graduate diploma in information sciences. (Fall term is February to June in NZ.) I’m in courses with some incredible coders. After the disaster that was 2020, then having an aunt pass away a few weeks into this term, and fracturing my tailbone on term break — because apparently I needed the padded roller derby shorts as well as a helmet, knee, elbow, and wrist pads when learning to roller skate — I’ve been feeling some pressure (mostly self-imposed) to go the software dev route because there’s just so. many. software. jobs.
Working with an awesome team, job and financial security, and good health plan are definitely there on the backend/software development side of tech. I enjoy it, and it’s definitely fun at times (especially when I can make something I can see) but it’s not a life-long passion like design and helping people is for me. Most of my favourite things involve designing and visual spatial thinking: knitting and crochet (see photos at the end of this article), the outdoors (exploring/expanding my mental map), swimming (I go by distance/space travelled not time), urban planning and design, graphic and web design, writing (most of my published work has graphics and/or visual-spatial elements), maps, and playing city sim and puzzle games. City Skylines rocks. I’m not letting myself get the two new DLC expansions until after term is over.
My UX course is my favourite one this term — both because of the topic and because of my tutorial and assignment group. The UX research portion of the course is very similar to the research based Social Anthropology courses I took at the University of Calgary. Coding UX research notes is a lot like (but less formal/systematic) than the ‘Outline of Cultural Materials’ that’s part of the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF). Everything just makes sense to me. Even the week when I was both in lots of pain from my fractured tailbone and exhausted after my first vaccine shot, UX was doable. (#covidsucks #uxrocks).
The UX course has weekly group tutorial exercises as well as a final group project. In our group there’s five of us spread across three countries, in three time zones, and we’re managing to make it work with all our other multiple commitments and busy lives (and the pandemic). Two are parents of young children. Two are graduating this term. Someone just moved back to New Zealand with a 40+ hour trip and two weeks in MIQ (Managed Isolation and Quarantine). There’s a really good backend coder and fellow former teacher who’s partner works in tech. One is a full-time technical writer and joins group meetings on MS Teams during lunch break. Another lives in a small town and has a different daily schedule. Yes, there were some hiccups near the beginning of term — but that’s part of the “forming, storming, norming, performing” of group dynamics. We got the “storming” bit out of the way near the beginning of term when there was only small tutorial assignments, well before the specs for our big group assignment were released.
The assignment goal is to “work though aspects of the interaction design process to design a digital version of one of the design briefs”. The ‘client’ is an actual real STEM academy* focused on connecting Māori culture and knowledge to hands-on STEM activities for adolescents (years/grades 7–12). While it’s not stated in the design brief, the product does need to be bilingual in te reo Māori and English (at a minimum). I’m so excited. This is ed tech, and science (one of my “teachable subjects”) and indigenous knowledge. We’ve chosen the making a cannon exercise — because it’s really cool.
*[Note: I’m leaving the name of the academy out of this article because it feels more professional — especially as there’s been no discussion about client disclosure. I’m also being purposely vague about who my teammates are. They’re awesome, but I’m not speaking for them here.]
Two night ago (Toronto time), we had a Teams meeting to work on the essential use cases, and edit the last bit of work. Usually we work discussing everything as a group and one person types. (Someone has a mechanical keyboard, as I’ve gotten so used to hearing typing during meetings.) But for the use cases we divided up the work. I worked on one for the teacher lesson planning dashboard. The other former teacher worked on the teacher instructing dashboard, another software engineering student did the student use case, while someone else edited our last bit of work. The technical writer was in a meeting at work and joined us later. He typically is the primary editor. His document style is my happy place. It’s so nice to be on the same page — specially after 18 years of editing students’ work!
Yesterday’s step was for each of us to do the specific two or three design prototypes that we’d decided as a group to do. I’d already started with paper and pencil before the use case meeting, because I just needed to actually physically draw something. I’d googled “UX prototyping tools” right after our use case meeting and realised that I had Adobe Xd. (Yes, it was a ‘face-palm’ moment. I’ve had creative cloud since summer term started in November — but we’ll just blame the duh moment on covid. ;-) ) So I thought I’d give it a go. Anything Adobe has a bit of a learning curve in the beginning, so the first design would likely take a bit.
I had so much fun! It was a complete state of flow — something I’ve only hit about three times in more code heavy courses. Once in Python while writing the camel game; I made a Tim Burton Alice in Underland version where she’s on the Bandersnatch fleeing from the Red Queen’s Card Soliders (and there’s a random chance of being killed by the Jabberwocky — then the entire poem prints to screen). Another time designing the front end of a C# .Net application; I made it for a roller skating company that made my yellow and pink leopard print roller skates (the app design is the brand’s pink and green colours). Then earlier this term on the first bit of databases — the initial design part with Visio.
The more I dove into it, the more I’m excited about learning to use Adobe Xd really well. My group is excited about the potential to have an interactive prototype for our assignment video. (We need a video demonstration and a very long report.) I really liked that it was easy to switch between a dark mode theme that closely matches the STEM Academy’s brand and a high contrast light mode that’s more accessible. Yes, I’m the team member constantly bringing up accessibility. So making creating a user controlled option for a high contrast theme quick and easy is so helpful.
Caption: Initial prototype of teacher site — main dashboard for lesson planning. Branded/dark mode colour scheme. All the places that say “Te reo” need to be translated into Te Reo Māori
Caption: Initial prototype of teacher site — main dashboard for lesson planning. High contrast light colour scheme. All the places that say “Te reo” need to be translated into Te Reo Māori._
Caption: Initial prototype of the planning an activity page (teacher site). All the places that say “Te reo” need to be translated into Te Reo Māori. All pdfs will be accessible OCR format.
Having the positive feedback from my teammates and having an awesome flow day designing something has led to my being sure that I going the design career path in tech is right for me — even more so if I can work with a diverse, fun team like in my UX course. Then this morning (during morning coffee) I found the YouTube channel of another Kiwi woman — Femke — also living in Toronto and working in product design for Uber Eats. Her video “How much does a UX designer earn? Real numbers and my salary history“ just underscored that design side of tech can definitely lead to financial stability. (Her other videos also look awesome.)
Ultimately, I should also take the advise that I gave to high school students for almost two decades: “Follow your passion. You’ll be good at what you love doing. There’s a way to make a career out of everything. You never know where life will take you.”
So that’s the (very long) story of how having eye surgery for a hole in my retina led to my teaching myself Adobe Xd yesterday — and being certain that UI/UX design is the right career path for me.
If I hadn’t had retinal surgery, I would have graduated from my double degree program in 1998, wouldn’t have had to take additional courses, wouldn’t have ended up taking those two computer art/Adobe Photoshop courses, and likely wouldn’t be where I am today — starting a new career in UI/UX design and being confident that this is the right second career path for me.
I love design, there’s awesome people, I can help people, use my teaching experience and social anthropology degree, and I’m being financially responsible.
“Follow your passion. You’ll be good at what you love doing. There’s a way to make a career out of everything. You never know where life will take you.”
Epilogue — A Mini Design Portfolio:
Here’s a few of my knitting projects. Knitting and drawing were my start to the design world. As mentioned above my Nana in New Zealand was an avid knitter and crocheter and my first ‘art and design’ teacher. (She even knitted jerseys for The All Blacks — Aotearoa New Zealand’s national rugby team in the 1970s.) I still knit almost every day using both published designs and creating my own. Knitting also has strong links to tech …
“Knitting is, at its fundamentals, a binary code featuring top-down design, standardized submodules, and recursive logic that relies on ratios, mathematical principles, and an intuitive grasp of three-dimensional geometry.”
~Kim Salazar on Knit List on LISTSERV circa late 1990s
Caption: Yoke detail on my most recent (almost finished) pullover sweater. The design is adapted from Vintersol by Jennifer Steingass
Caption: My first interlaced Celtic cables project finished in November 2016. The pattern is Celtic Moonrise Mittens by Rhiannon Don.
PHOTO: CABLED CARDIGAN DETAIL Caption: Detail of the back cable panel of my long cabled cardigan. My own design._
PHOTO: CABLED CARDIGAIN, KITTEN, CROCHETED PINK THROW Caption: Completed cabled cardigan. My cable designs. The maths of the style is based off of Elizabeth Zimmermann’s percentage system (sweater math) for pullovers. I designed the arms and torso longer because I’m tall, and the extra room in the shoulders so it’s easy to layer in winter. Also showing a pink crocheted throw I whipped up in 2019 and the biggest of my three recuse cats — Kitten, my Norwegian Forest Cat cross. He’s included here because cats + yarn + working at home + this is posted online._
Note: Originally published on Medium.com. Edited and added to gingerkiwi.blog on January 09, 2023.