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The Challenges of Being a University Student With a Serious Illness

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It takes a lot for words to ring through me, but when filling out some university paperwork due to missing nearly half a semester on medical leave, I came across the university guideline under serious health conditions which reads: “When you take up an offer to study full-time, you need to be aware of the commitment this requires.” The policy is being revisited with a lot more clarity in the near future, but it has certainly made me reflect on my time as a seriously ill student.

On the one hand, I can appreciate this statement, as sick or not, it acknowledges we’re students and considers us equal to our peers. There are times and places when there is nothing I could want more. The problem is, I’m not a “normal” student, not even close. I go to lectures with heart monitors hanging off of me. I lie on the floor in the majority of my classes with my head on my wheelchair footplate, just to put my body into a position where it can withstand the hour of pain without disrupting the other 50 20-year-olds in there. I still insist on going, just to prove to everyone else that I’m well enough to be there. I’m not trying to prove it to myself, of course, I know full well I’m not. But being there with my peers means more to me than any seizure or fainting spell.

It’s a fittingly complex system trying to attend classes with a complex illness. Most students bring their laptop, a bottle of water and maybe a pen in their bag, whereas if someone looked in mine they’d find an ECG machine, a blood pressure cuff, a thermometer, a seizure monitor and instructions, 30x daily meds in case I’m not home for any of four daily medication times, multiple packets of pain relief and antiemetics to counter-balance them, a bottle of brutally strong pain relief that can be taken along with the first ones, spare fentanyl patches, liquid calorie feeds in case my body can’t tolerate solid food that day, heat packs, splints, sports drinks for electrolyte top-ups, and finally, my laptop.

I’m very lucky with my academic department. Actually, scratch that, I’m unfathomably lucky with my academic department. My whole teaching team are so normalized to my health that when I dislocate joints up to around 100x a day, it’s not the slightest problem when I sit there putting them back in. I bring a blanket to my classes and I lie underneath it on the floor for the duration of being taught about something I genuinely wish I could focus on, but have no hope of doing so.

I have lecturers who warn me before I get there that they have a cough because they know how dangerous it is when I get sick. Lecturers who do whatever they can to support me, and who go so out of their way to match the effort I’m making to be there when it is beyond their job description. I’m so incredibly grateful for them, and know without them being the kind and generous people they are, I wouldn’t be able to be at university.

There are things that can never be prevented during a class, though. When you have three strong opiates running through your veins just to try and function, have 15 to 20 joints dislocating, and are trying to ignore the continuous clawing of pain at your internal organs, concentrating on complex philosophical theories just isn’t going to happen. That’s when having a note taker becomes invaluable. Attending lectures as a sick person can involve an overwhelming feeling of being underwater – nodding and smiling and hoping when you go over it at 3:30 in the morning because you’re up with painsomnia anyway, it’ll finally start to make sense.

There is of course more to university life than the degree. Trying to keep up with my healthy, abled friends frankly isn’t feasible. I have to make so many sacrifices my healthy peers will never have to even think about. But if I could do it all over again, I would still choose to go every time. Sometimes the highlight of my social life is my friends clambering into my bed in the morning to let me know about the drama that happened when they went out the night before, and that’s OK.

If you’re a university student with a chronic illness, there will probably be periods when you’ll be overwhelmed by the amount of work you have to do while clinging on for dear life – but you are a fighter, and I know you will get through it. And most importantly: chances are, you’re not alone, not even close. Whether you’ve found them or not, take comfort in the fact that there are other sick uni students, maybe at your university, who know exactly what you’re going through.

Originally published: July 16, 2019
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