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Guide To Navigating College With A Chronic Illness

Student with Chronic IllnessAbout The Author: Anna is a 23-year-old full-time college student studying Social Work at the University of Kentucky. She hopes to one day work as a medical social worker at a children’s hospital to advocate for and empower children receiving medical care.

Balancing Life As A College Student

They say that college is the time in your life when you grow the most; from all the experiences you have with people you meet to organizations you become a part of to the major you choose to study. All of these things are supposed to be exciting experiences, but they can also come with a lot of challenges and new levels of responsibility. When it was time for me to start this journey four years ago, I thought I knew exactly how it was supposed to go. I thought everyone’s college experience was fun and carefree and that everything would go according to plan, but I eventually learned that this was not the case.

My journey has been a bit challenging at times, but it is one I would not change for the world. If you talked to the average college student, they would tell you that life is hectic and there are not many free moments aside from studying, making memories with friends, trying to figure out career goals, and learning to live on their own. If someone told them that they’d have to make room on top of that for managing a chronic health condition, they would probably look at that person like they had lost their mind. That’s exactly how I reacted at first when I started facing health challenges about halfway through college. 

Managing My Chronic Illnesses

I have two rare blood diseases that I have to manage every single day. I have weekly infusions, frequent blood draws, multiple appointments and chronic symptoms. For the last three semesters, I have gone through surgeries during school as well as multiple emergency room visits and hospital admissions. Throughout all of these obstacles, I managed to balance a full course load of classes and assignments. Many would think I might be miserable, but it truly is my passion and I feel so lucky to be able to continue to chase my dreams. I am studying Social Work at the University of Kentucky and I am two semesters away from getting my Bachelor of Arts in Social Work. I am concurrently working towards my master’s in social work as well starting this Spring. I would love to be a clinical social worker in a children’s hospital one day to help families and children through medical battles.

All of this to say, that I have had a lot of experience trying to figure out a balance of college life while managing my chronic illness and all of the ups and downs it brings. I am a huge advocate of sharing my story in the hopes to raise awareness and shed light on the fact that it is still possible to chase your dreams even if it seems impossible or is not the “normal” college experience. I have had to make many adjustments along the way some of which have not been my favorite, but I have also truly learned the importance of balance.

I am so happy to share some things I have found as kind of a guide to tackling college while having a chronic illness:

1. Communication Is KEY

This is the first lesson I had to learn when I started to face medical challenges. It is extremely important to communicate with people such as your professors, advisors, as well as places such as the student health center that may be able to offer disability services or accommodations. There tends to be a stigma around having a personal connection with professors, but if you are a student with a chronic condition, this is crucial. Even a simple email explaining where you are that week or what you might need to make things more attainable can go such a long way.

More often than not, they are willing to work with you and want you to be successful. People such as your advisors can also be your advocate and keeping them informed is also beneficial. For me, when I know I have to have surgery, an emergency room visit, or a hospital admission, I will email my advisor as well as my professors in advance. I like to outline what is happening and how it will affect their class or what I might need to keep up.

2. Keep Track Of Deadlines

It is always better to be proactive with your classes and assignments while trying to juggle managing your health. I have found if I have a week where I have a big doctor’s appointment, procedure, or not feeling my best, it is better for me to try my best to work ahead a little bit. I also make sure to send my professor an email before it gets too close to a deadline or if I cannot be in class. Doing this before I get stressed is helpful in making an action plan to get things accomplished, versus trying to push myself to the last minute and possibly end up not doing my best work or accomplishing it at all. This also helps me remind myself I have a solid plan to move forward.

3. Plan Your Week Out 

Throughout my entire life, I have always been someone who likes to plan things out, but I quickly learned I cannot always plan what will happen medically. However, I have found that I can plan a lot of things when it comes to school! I have a planner that I keep updated daily and it breaks down the month as well as each day of the week. I also have a whiteboard calendar in my room and even a schedule pad on my desk when I have a lot to get done. It tends to keep me on track and makes me less likely to forget assignments, especially when I might have a crazy week of appointments. I fight a lot of brain fog and planning out when my assignments need to get done makes me feel in control and less stressed about missing something. Along with my class times and due dates, I also schedule in any doctor’s appointments so that it prevents some of the crossover!

4. Time Management Is Crucial

This probably sounds like the lesson we are all taught when we first start college, but I mean something a little bit different when I am talking about chronic illness and college. There are many times that we might want to procrastinate work till the last minute or sometimes super late at night. I quickly found that for me when I got sick it was hard for me to just sit in one place and do hours’ worth of studying especially at night. Sometimes my level of pain will increase doing this as well as feeling foggy and not focused.

When I push myself in these situations it often just makes me more fatigued and flares symptoms and I accomplish much less. I have found it works best for me when I spread out times to do schoolwork as well as trying my best to not do it very late at night. It really helps me to break it up as well as get up and move to a new spot as well. This is why it is important for me to manage my time and plan when I want and need to study!

5. Separate School And Your Illness

This might be the most important and helpful thing I have learned to do. Initially, I thought that even when I am in a waiting room for an appointment or have my infusions at the clinic that I needed to use every spare moment for school. I would put so much pressure on myself and it really made me feel more stressed and I was not able to give either area of my life proper focus. I made the choice that when I am waiting at a doctor’s appointment or during my weekly infusions, I would not use that time to cram in schoolwork. I have really made an effort to do things that are relaxing and a fun distraction. I usually take time to journal, read, just watch a funny show on Netflix, or simply rest. This really helps me to stay relaxed during treatments and ensure I have not missed anything medically. As well as an opportunity to practice self-care which is so important!

6. Schedule In Time For Self-Care 

Last but certainly not least I wanted to talk about self-care and finding a balance. I often find myself feeling like I do not get to be as care-free as my friends in school get to be and is something I still struggle with. I knew I had to compensate for that by finding a good balance that was not just school and medical things and nothing else. It was easy for me to just do schoolwork all the time or try to deal with my medical needs constantly. I quickly realized that part of this balance is self-care. Self-care is multifaceted in so many ways and finding a rhythm of self-care that I enjoyed really helped me find balance with school. Self-care truly is not just the cliché things we see online and to me, I like to focus on different areas of my life and have self-care options for all of them.

Taking care of yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally are the three areas of my life that easily get thrown off if one of the others is not being cared for. Everyone is different and so you might find that what you need in self-care is not the same as your friends. For me I try to make sure I have time every week no matter how busy, to talk to friends even just on the phone, or to have dinner and watch a movie with my roommates. I also have found that taking some time for me a couple of times a week really helps me handle the stress that school mixed with chronic illness can easily cause. I love to get outside as much as I can and spend time with family. But no matter what this looks like for you, the big picture takeaway I have found is that if you do not find this rhythm and balance, it is not easy to stay on track. It might seem like you are taking time away from being productive but taking care of every part of you is just as productive as writing a paper!

Finding A Balance

I hope that these things provide some guidance, help, and encouragement for anyone trying to tackle college life with a chronic illness or any medical challenge. I say all of these things not to try to say it is at all easy to be in school full-time and try to fight through medical challenges. It truly is something you have to want and set your mind to, but it is entirely possible. I often have to remind people that while my diagnosis does impact my life in a huge way, I am still me. I just have to find new ways to get to where I want to be, and you can too. I always remind myself that even two journeys with the same ending will always have a different path to get there and both are equally valuable!

 

If you are looking for more resources and support surrounding chronic illness, check out our other blogs:

What are some other tips for college students living with a chronic illness? Let us know in the comments or share your story with us here. We love hearing from our community members!

6 Responses

Josh

Josh

February 05, 2021

Anna this is so wonderful! Thank you for the courage and vulnerability in sharing your story and thank you for advocating for yourself and also providing an avenue of hope and inspiration for others who may be experiencing similar struggles as you. I’m so proud of you! Keep fightin’

Tag Heister

Tag Heister

February 03, 2021

Anna, Saw this article you wrote because Lauren posted the link. What a great article. Haven’t seen you for a while but have kept up some via Lauren and Linda. I just want to say you are pretty incredible. I worked with a lot of wonderful clinical social workers at the UK Department of Psychiatry and the Kentucky Children’s Hospital as a clinical medical librarian. I am so excited you are going into this field. You will be so good at this. I look forward to learning more of the wonderful things you do in your future, despite and maybe because of your personal journey. I remember your mother fondly and I know she would be so very proud of you. Keep on keeping on, Anna, and sharing your journey. Tag Heister

Kaye

Kaye

February 03, 2021

This is very inspiring and interesting information. Anna has made it easy to understand. I hope the best for her. I know she is going to reach her goals.

Myra DeLuca

Myra DeLuca

February 03, 2021

SO MUCH wisdom!!!! How brave of you to share your experiences! I have no doubt this will help others in similar situations.

Jena

Jena

February 03, 2021

Amazing person with unbelievable talent for writing understandable useful information. She will go far in her field.

Samantha Schultz

Samantha Schultz

February 03, 2021

Wow this is so inspiring! Thanks so much for sharing your story! You work so hard to keep it everything in line, and I have so much respect for that!

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