How Design Thinking Transformed a Military Veteran’s Life

Have you ever thought of giving up? Or have you ever felt defeated? That’s exactly how I felt as the pain spread from my right shoulder down to my legs and my entire body. It felt overwhelming just trying to walk. At 4am in the morning, unable to sleep from a sharp pain, I slowly shuffled through the snow of Upstate New York, as I thought about how far I had come and where I was going.

In the Winter of 2013, I shuffled to the local VA hospital and the emergency room to get my blood drawn for tests. Then a week later, I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. I was devastated. I was in a highly competitive graduate program at Syracuse University, pioneering a new program for military veterans in higher education, and I started to think about dropping out of school all together.

Instead, I started planning with the intended outcome of putting on my black cap and gown, and walking across the graduation stage. My plan started with small experiments after a nurse told me that swimming daily could change the flexibility in my joints, reduce the sharp bursts of pain, and help me to keep moving.

I started designing my morning routine. I would get up, make my bed, and floss my teeth. After brushing my teeth, I would get ready for my day, finishing any reading from the night before, and completing my homework. I would then walk up the Syracuse University hill towards a grey clock tower, and then to the gym to exercise. I would swim ten laps daily (first in the kiddie pool and then in the Olympic sized pool), shower, get dressed and then go to class.

At the same time, I started becoming more aware of what I was eating. I started to abstain from drinking alcohol and eating foods that would exacerbate the pain in my joints. I started eating more salmon, fruits, and watching my diet.

At the end of the day, I would mark a red “X” on the large black & white monthly calendar that I taped up on my wall. 1 day down. Then 1 day became 5 days, and 5 days became 50 days. I started a pattern of consecutive red “X’s” and a streak that I didn’t want to break.

It was at this time, in March of 2014, that I was introduced to a team from IDEO during a conference on citizen engagement and the concept of human-centered design for creative problem-solving, public policy, and civic innovation.

“Design (v.): To plan something with an intended outcome.”
Abby Covert, How to Make Sense of Any Mess

That moment in time marked a turning point in my life. I had discovered the power of design. My plan was to design my morning routine and my daily habits. It came down to creative problem-solving and thinking intentionally about flossing, exercising, and dieting every day.

Then on May 10, 2014, at the end of 100 consecutive days (with 100 red “X’s” on my calendar), I walked across the stage in Hendricks Chapel at Syracuse University. I was a graduate with a master’s degree from the Maxwell School, the #1 rated Public Administration school in the entire country. My parents were in the crowd, along with people I cared about, and my friends Carol, Steve, and Andy.

After graduation, I started thinking about more challenges and complex problems to solve. What if we applied design to improve our lives? What if we applied design thinking to improving the patient experience at the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs? What if we could design more human-centered services for military veterans all across the country?

In the face of giving up, I began a new journey in my life, with a new purpose and lots of unanswered questions. What if we thought of military veterans as creative problem solvers and innovators? What if my story could help inspire other people? And what if all of us can be the designers, creators, and makers of our own lives?