Throughout his life, Don has navigated a course that hasn’t always been smooth sailing. He has achieved professional success as an award-winning visual journalist because of his dedicated work ethic, artistic talent and determination from an early age to take initiative as someone with essential tremor (ET). Essential tremor, a neurological condition that causes a rhythmic trembling of the hands, head, voice, legs or trunk, affects approximately 10 million people in the United States.
Don understands how vital it is to communicate with others about ET. “My father had it,” he says. “Nobody ever told me what was going on. Not a single conversation. I’m guessing back then they just wrote it off to ‘nerves.’”
Don’s family also chose to refrain from talking about his ET. His earliest memory of the condition dates back to his grade school years. He’s unsure why his family wasn’t more forthcoming. “This is a big mystery to me. Since both of my parents have passed away, I’ll never know,” he says. “My tremors were obvious since I was a teen, but nobody ever mentioned them. None of my other siblings had it. When my nephew showed up with it, my sister contacted me. That would be the first family conversation about ET.”
Now, Don wants to share his story with others that have ET or know someone who does. “If there is any insight I can provide for any kid who is starting out with this, then I’m glad to help,” he says. “That’s my goal, to help someone else deal. And quite honestly, I’ve found that there is a single foremost issue in ‘dealing.’ It’s validation. And, we won’t get it unless we seek it. Unless we tell the co-worker. Unless we tell the wife. Until we tell our children.”
Don faced a few challenges in school regarding his ET. “Some kid tried to label me ‘Shaky’ in 7th grade, but I changed the subject. I smacked him,” he says. “My first and only fistfight. Not a choice I would recommend.”
Smartly, Don decided to deal with other hurdles in a more practical fashion. Art has always been his primary interest in life. As a child, he loved drawing, mostly ships and beach scenes from surroundings near the Florida coast and island where he grew up.
“I do remember the frustration of wanting to draw, but not being able to draw as well as I would like,” he says. “So I drew big when I could. Big is forgiving.”
To counter tremor, he adopted techniques and tools in classes that proved effective. “In middle school, I took a drafting class and I was exposed to many mechanical devices that helped me draw straight lines and graceful curves. As an artist years later, and before computers, I leaned on this experience heavily,” he recalls.
Don’s capabilities were also tested in ROTC during high school. “Everyone joked that I couldn’t hit the target, but I ranked Sharpshooter,” he recalls. “It was a matter of a deep breath, focus, wait for the moment and shoot. I graduated as a major and a command staff member, but the ribbon (and medal) I was most proud of was that Sharpshooter.”
He replicated this success with archery in later years. Then, the tremor grew worse so he sold his bows and moved on.
Don’s interest in art found an outlet in high school. “My passion was photography,” he says. “I mowed lawns and worked as a dishwasher at a local seafood restaurant to afford a nice camera and darkroom. My photography got me involved in the school newspaper and yearbook where I’d later become the photo editor and editor, respectively.”
He did not let ET become a barrier for his activities. “My tremors did cause some issues with the camera. I learned to shoot at high speeds to keep the blur down, or to use a strobe,” he says. “As a senior, I decided to focus on writing and production of the yearbook and managing photographers. This is when I knew that I wanted to be in the communications field.”
Don’s media career as a visual journalist and illustrator grew out of his interest in art. He graduated from the University of Florida with a bachelor’s degree in art. Working in journalism, he offset the effects of ET by learning how to use computers and software programs to illustrate his ideas.
He was the staff artist for the Gainesville Sun when the Macintosh came out. Because he didn’t have a Mac in his office, he went to the advertising department at night and learned how to use a computer. “I begged my editor for a year to get a Mac for the art department,” he says. Armed with a new Mac II, a Laserwriter and Adobe Illustrator software, Don made full use of his creative talent. “I threw myself 200% into mastering the program. It was a godsend to me. In a couple years, I went from an artist in a small town struggling with his craft to being a leader in the industry.”
Don trained staff at the New York Times newspapers on how to use the new technology. His goal in college had been to combine art and journalism. Now, technology presented him with an exciting opportunity. “When I left the Gainesville Sun, I stepped up from being a ‘staff artist’ to a new title at the Arizona Republic that really didn’t exist before…visual journalist,” he says. “And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.”
Willing and Able
Don has successfully used computer illustration to express his artistic ideas. He’s built an impressive career as an award-winning visual journalist with fifteen years in media and as a full-time freelancer for over thirteen years. For over 25 years, his company Newsinfographics has been creating information-based graphics, animations and illustrations for clients including National Geographic, Discover, Scientific American, WIRED and Sports Illustrated.
“Last year, I did the infographics in Al Gore’s Our Choice. This year, I did the illustrations for the History Channel’s companion book to their America series and I’m now working on Ted Danson’s books on the oceans which will come out next year,” he says. “I’ve had the fortune of having some incredible clients, and the list keeps building.”
Further, he has written two books on 3D and animation for Peachpit Press and has taught several college courses on the same subjects.
“I’ve evolved my style and learned new tools over the years,” he says. “Because of these tools, my tremors are of no consequence to me. If I can imagine it, I can create it. It was absolute freedom, what I saw in my mind, I could now create. The quality of my work took huge leaps forward.”
Don’s willingness to adopt and learn technology has played a key role throughout his career. “Since I learned to draw with a mouse, I still stick with a mouse. It gives me the smooth control I need. I think you couldn’t design a better tool for someone with tremor,” he says. “In an odd way, my tremor really made my success in this industry possible. I was an artist at the right time at the right place and my tremor made me master the new technology.”
Help in Many Forms
He also utilizes technology to accomplish daily tasks without allowing ET to hamper his capabilities. A voice recorder on his iPhone captures notes to minimize writing down details. Dragon Dictation, a product developed by Nuance Communications that uses voice recognition software, allows him to quickly speak and instantly see text or email messages much faster than typing on a small keypad. For instances where he does need to write, he uses speed typing skills learned in high school. “The repetition of typing makes it easy for me to write without frustration,” he says. “Having a scanner is a huge help. If I get a form I need to fill out, I scan it in, open it in Photoshop, fill in the form and then print it out,” he explains. He also suggests using a two-in-one scanner/printer and free open source programs similar to Adobe Photoshop. “Just Google ‘open source photoshop’ and you’ll find a handful.”
For low-tech needs, he prefers to use lightweight thick pens with the rubber down on the nubs.
“The biggest problem with ET for me has nothing to do with my art, interestingly enough. It’s about the frustration of not being able to do some things, even if they’re small things,” he admits. “Sometimes I can’t write a check. Forget about filling out forms where they want you to write your address on a two-inch line. My favorite restaurant fills my iced tea glass to the brim every time.
“You work through it; you pay your bills online. You slide your driver’s license across the counter and ask the receptionist to help. My wife will take a few sips of my drink for me. Mostly, I just avoid setting myself up in a situation where I’m doomed to really screw things up. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword. You want to be tough and say that there’s nothing you can’t do, but on the other hand you want to mitigate the frustration. My wife is my biggest aid. If you have a partner, be honest about what your limitations and concerns are. It really helps.”
Know the Deal
Every person on earth deals with challenges. Don’s advice for kids growing up with ET also makes sense for anyone who isn’t perfect.
“My kids, now in college, grew up hearing me say hundreds of times when they stumbled on something, ‘Nobody’s perfect, and if there was a perfect person, I think I’d find them pretty annoying,’” says Don. “My eldest daughter has arthritis, my youngest has to wear glasses, my wife has funky allergies and I have tremor. I think I got off easy.”
Early on, Don accepted that he was “wired differently” than everyone else. “I’ve had a lifetime of people making comments without thinking first. Best thing to do is to just lay your cards on the table immediately and, amazingly enough, it seldom comes up again,” he says. “I can only think of one friend when I was growing up who kept mentioning it, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that was her flaw, not mine.”
Don, by nature an “incredibly relaxed person,” understands that some people might think nervousness is a problem if your hands shake. “If it concerns you, then let everything else about you be cool and calm,” he suggests. “You can put your hands in your pockets, lean back and think twice about anything you’re about to say and really pull off being cool and collected. It’s how I got through my 20s.
“I used to be incredibly self-conscious about my hands as a teen. Then I discovered that every teen is incredibly self-conscious about something. By the time I was in my 20s, I just stopped caring about it. I was still frustrated about some things I couldn’t do, but I absolutely stopped caring about what anyone else thought. The jerk at work that made comments about my hands, pretty much was a jerk anyway, my ET had nothing to do with his high degree of jerkiosity. His problem, not mine.”
Don Foley grew up sailing. His father had a small dinghy sailboat. Don’s first boat was a $4 small plastic boat that he bought at a discount store. Every day after school he headed to the canal near his house. Drawn to the water, he would launch his boats into the wind and current. “I would progress with bigger and bigger boats through school, but the time I was the happiest is when I was out in the middle of a big body of water in one of my boats,” he says.
He has progressed from a 4-foot plastic boat to a 40-foot sloop capable of sailing anywhere in the world. Much like his professional life, Don has found solutions to minimize the impact of ET on his creative production and leisure.
“On big boats, things are done in a big style with large wheels at the helm, big pulleys and thick ropes,” he says. “The only time I find myself frustrated is if I’m doing some tight engine repair and I can’t get a nut on or the screwdriver to fit into the slot the first few attempts. But in the balance of life, these are small compromises. A little non-hardening gasket sealer on the tip of your fingers will help you hold onto a nut (or keep them from falling if you lose your grip) and placing screws in a magnetized screwdriver often does the trick.”
Life with ET requires navigation, but these waters are not completely uncharted. Nearly 10 million people in the United States with ET continue to lead an active life to some degree. Whether behind the captain’s wheel on his sailboat or guiding a computer mouse to illustrate a complex diagram, Don Foley maintains a positive outlook and resolve.
“I would like to hold out hope to those with ET that life doesn’t have to suck all of the time,” he says. “With the right mix, the appreciation of what we have far outweighs our ability to button a shirt. Anyone can button a shirt. I’d like to think that we’re working on a slightly elevated state, but somebody else wired us different by accident when we hit the production floor.”
Don’s mental attitude and understanding of his physical capabilities – not limits – enable him to navigate life through rough waters and smooth seas bolstered by the love and support of his family. He says, “My wife and girls are my everything. My ET is a small, small side issue.”