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The Act of Kindness From a Professor That Helped Me Thrive With Celiac Disease

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Imagine this: you’re a college freshman at a school where freshmen can’t have cars. You have celiac disease, and your college cafeteria only has limited gluten-free options. Until a near total stranger – a professor you’ve only met once – shares that she also has celiac disease… and offers to drive you, on her own time, to a specialty grocery store full of celiac-safe options.

That was me over four years ago. When I was diagnosed with celiac disease during my senior year of high school, I had no idea of the challenges I’d face as a college student with celiac disease. Not only did my college cafeteria struggle to provide me with adequate gluten-free meals, but, as I’ve shared before, a gluten-free diet wasn’t enough for me to heal from celiac disease, and I kept losing a dangerous amount of weight.

And then, halfway into my first semester of college, one of my professors happened to mention, “You have celiac disease? So does Professor C.” 

I actually had Professor C as one of my other teachers, but since she taught a seminar class that rarely involved the traditional lecture, I’d only actually “met” her once. But, for whatever reason, I decided to shoot Professor C an email. My school was tiny, and my celiac diagnosis was so new, I’d only met a handful of other people with it. I couldn’t resist the chance to connect with someone who could even partially understand what I was going through.

And, not too long after I sent my message, my inbox beeped with Professor C’s reply. Her email started with the usual niceties: Small world, nice to meet someone else with celiac disease, how wonderful that I was in her class! And then I read the email’s final paragraph: I know freshmen can’t have a car. Would you like a ride to the local Sprouts Farmers Market sometime this week? They have tons of gluten-free options!

I was stunned. At this point, I’d yet to learn how to comfortably advocate for my own health and my dietary needs. I was embarrassed enough by the fact that, when I did go to the cafeteria, I had to wait in the corner and ask for “Casey Cromwell’s special gluten-free meal.” Not to mention that Professor C was nearing retirement and seemed to be lowering her workload, not adding new pet projects (or student pets!) to her to-do list.

Yet, as tentative as I was to “be a bother,” I thought about the food waiting for me in the cafeteria, about the chance to explore a store full of delicious gluten-free products I could actually eat… and I couldn’t resist accepting Professor C’s offer.

Which is how I ended up in Professor C’s small convertible one weekday afternoon. The drive was only 15 minutes long, and we chatted about everything from our celiac diagnosis stories (she was diagnosed way before the gluten-free fad diet, and shared memories of bread that tasted like cardboard and having to special order all of her gluten-free food) to mundane school topics. And when we arrived at Sprouts and started shopping, she pointed out which gluten-free brands tasted good and which were wastes of money.

By the time I was back in my dorm room less than two hours later, my mini fridge was the fullest it had been since the semester first started. 

I wish I could say that Professor C and I became lifelong pen pals or celiac buddies, but that isn’t the case. I sent her a thank you email, but I only saw her a couple more times that semester. Since I didn’t see her at all the rest of my college career, I’m guessing she retired soon after.

However, that doesn’t mean I forgot about my past professor’s small act of kindness. On the contrary, the chauffeured grocery visit is one of my fondest memories of my first semester of college, which was full of homesickness, a hospitalization for celiac complications and slow healing.

When I first emailed Professor C, I didn’t have any expectations or goals. I just wanted to celebrate the fact that I wasn’t the only person on campus who needed to eat the “weird” gluten-free diet. But when she offered to be my wheels at a time when I needed them most, well, all I can say is thank you.

young woman wearing a hat and standing in a parking lot holding flowers

Thank you for showing me a small glimpse of how supportive and amazing the celiac community can be. 

Thank you for going out of your way to help someone newer to the gluten-free world than you were.

And thank you for modeling the way I hope I will behave if I become a college professor in the future and have students with dietary limitations or chronic illnesses in my class.

I can’t know for sure but I’m guessing that, for Professor C, the grocery trip was probably nothing more than a good deed that also let her stock up on groceries for the week. But for me, it was an unexpected lifeline during the hardest college semester of my life.

And for that, I will always be grateful.

This post first appeared on my blog, Casey the College Celiac.

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Originally published: February 1, 2018
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