News: Student overcomes blindness to get university degree

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Published in the June 4 2010 issue of The Edmonton Sun. News


Student overcomes blindness to get university degree

Most parents cry tears of joy when they watch their child graduate.

On Mikkel Arnston’s graduation day, his parents’ tears were due in large part to the fact that their blind son had done something seemingly impossible.

The 23-year-old mechanical engineering student suddenly lost his vision during his second year at the University of Alberta, but pushed on with his education despite the odds being stacked against him. On Thursday, Mikkel proudly received his post-secondary degree.

“He stuck with it and he did very well,” Mikkel’s mother, Viva, said just before Mikkel’s convocation ceremony, tears rolling freely down her face.

“We’re very proud.”

Mikkel was diagnosed with leber hereditary optic neuropathy (LHON) in 2007, his second year of mechnical engineering.

LHON is a disease that causes rapid degeneration of cells in the eye.

Mikkel’s vision was lost in a matter of months.

“I can’t see the big E,” he said quietly, referring to the first letter on the top line of the optometrist’s eye test.

Unable to drive alone or confidently cross the street, the normally outgoing and independent Mikkel has been left extremely vulnerable.

“You have to change everything. You can’t do things the same. You can’t take notes off the board. You can’t flip through a textbook to find something,” he said.

Mikkel’s parents described their son’s frontal vision as “like looking at a static TV.”

He was unable to complete the work experience portion of his engineering curriculum and fell into a very low point in his life.

“We were worried,” said Mikkel’s father, Don.

Despite this, the student was determined to finish his degree, with or without 100% vision.

“I was halfway through so I figured I’d better finish it up,” Mikkel said, citing enlarging of text and an emphasis on hearing as reasons for his post-secondary success.

“I’m very happy to be finished and to have my degree.”

Mikkel admits, however, that his chances of pursuing a career in the field are unlikely.

“The job prospects aren’t especially promising,” he said.

The graduate is now considering law school as an alternative career choice.

“He had his sights set on six figures and he’s going to get it one way or another,” Don said with a smile.

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