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To the Students Taking On College While Chronically Ill

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Finals week is upon us, and attending college while chronically ill is probably one of the most challenging tasks I have ever faced in my 19 years. Some professors are accommodating and some are not. Some campuses are very accessible while others could use some improvements in that department. No matter what your challenge is during college, there is a way to work around it.

Here are a few tips I have learned from my first year and a half of college. Like me, you, too, will have to make mistakes and learn from them to see what works best for your situation.

You will have to learn to manage your time better than any of your peers. Not only do you have to worry about writing papers, participating in group projects and studying for exams, but you also have to juggle doctor’s appointments, physical therapy, picking up prescriptions and maybe even a hospital admission or two. By the time your first year of college is finished, you will have become the master of time management.

Take advantage of the days when you can concentrate to get assignments done and study for that upcoming psychology exam. Unlike other students, you don’t have the luxury of knowing how you are going to feel in the days leading up to the exam. If you are feeling particularly ill the night before an exam, you won’t be able to cram like other students, which would further tax your fragile body. Stress exacerbates any condition, but studying and having assignments done well in advance will reduce some of the natural stressors of college.

You might fail tests because of pain, brain fog or just feeling plain sick. I can promise that you will sometimes do less-than-stellar on an exam because you cannot concentrate. I can’t tell you how many times I have gone into an exam knowing the material, but because I was so distracted by pain, I couldn’t even interpret the questions. If this happens, try not to be too hard on yourself, as there probably isn’t much you could have done differently. This semester, I got a B+ instead of an A because my teacher would not let me make up a quiz I missed due to a hospitalization. Parents may get mad, but if you did your best (and hopefully passed!), that is all anyone could ever ask.

Sleep and relaxation time is not optional. For many college students, sleep is laughable, optional even. Some people can go days without sleep and function just fine. Chronically ill college students know better. No sleep equals increased pain and other symptoms. Sometimes you can’t sleep regardless. Even though you may be struggling to get through the day for whatever reason, everyone will expect you to do just as much, if not more, than other students.

Getting across campus on time can be quite taxing. I did not consider the geography of my college campus at all when I was considering schools. I strongly advise anyone whose mobility can be compromised in any way to study the landscape. If there are a bunch of steep hills, that is probably not the best campus for someone who has to use crutches and a wheelchair regularly like me. While the set-up of the school is important, do not let your condition be the sole factor in your decision-making process. If you have your heart set on a school for its outstanding academics, apply there. You can work out the logistical issues later.

There is always that one professor who doesn’t get it and insists on giving you a terrible time when you ask for reasonable accommodations. While the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is a wonderful start to securing equal opportunities for those with disabilities, there are many loopholes that are often taken advantage of, which usually doesn’t end up working in your favor. You are your biggest advocate. When you start college, you should be the one requesting accommodations and attending the meetings through your school’s disabilities services department. It is OK to keep your parents in the loop, but they shouldn’t have to hold your hand through everything. Even with the help of the ADA and the disabilities office, I still managed to fail biology my first semester of my freshman year.

Another important tip: Just because a building has a ramp, does not mean that it is accessible. Many institutions have these obnoxiously steep and narrow ramps that are challenging to navigate in a wheelchair. Again, another loophole in the ADA. Check the accessibility of your classrooms before the first day to save yourself the stress and additional anxiety.

Because of their medications, it is not safe for many people with chronic illnesses to consume alcohol. Since this is considered a “rite of passage” in the college experience, many feel like they are missing out, but trust me, it is so not worth the liver damage and the chance of being caught for underage drinking. I promise it is possible to have fun in college without alcohol!

Last but not least, even though you are living with a chronic illness, you are also in the period of time that is supposed be the best four years of your life. You are no longer a child, but you do not yet have the full responsibilities of an adult. Remember, the pain of your body rebelling is for today, but the memories will last a lifetime. Life is too short and before you know it, these four years will have flown past. Get out there and live it up!

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s the hardest thing you deal with as someone with a chronic illness, and how do you face this? What advice and words of support would you offer someone facing the same thing? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Share Your Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: December 21, 2015
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