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5 Lessons I've Learned as a Chronically Ill Grad Student

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I just finished up a full year of physical therapy school. It’s somehow been both the slowest and fastest year of life as well as the hardest and best. It really hit me after my last exam before my first clinical a few days ago how much life has changed, how much I have learned and how incredibly lucky I am.

Those who know me know “focusing on the wins” has recently been one of my biggest coping strategies. Sure, that doesn’t take away the pain, but it keeps my head focused on the good. That last exam marked the end of another semester which in turn was a huge win.

So here are some of the things I learned that would be beneficial for anyone entering grad school with any sort of chronic illness. If only I had known these in the beginning, the transition would have been 100 times smoother! But they’ll thankfully make the next year of clinical and class easier! Also, it’s important to note I was diagnosed with gastroparesis three months before PT school started and added many diagnoses over the past year.


1. Your Health Comes First  

It only took me until July for this to hit home. I can be stubborn with wanting to make sure that nothing stands between me and that DPT, especially chronic illnesses. This means pushing a little too hard a lot of the time. I thought I could keep this up, but newsflash, I couldn’t, and I don’t know how many people can.

Learn from my mistakes and make sure to take time to recover, to take a night off studying, to get enough sleep and to be honest when it just gets too hard to juggle it all. Listening to your body is so important and in the attempt to be like everyone else it can be easy to ignore your own needs and accept you might have to do things a little differently. Take care of your mental and physical health above all else.

2. Your Advisor Can Be Your Biggest Advocate

I am a huge advocate for keeping your advisor or a trusted faculty member in the loop about what is going on with your health. It can be scary to share and I sure was terrified to tell my advisor about what was going on because I’m stubborn and I don’t want to let my gastroparesis win. However, telling her took a lot of weight off my shoulders and I quickly learned it was the best feeling to know there is a professor there who is always willing to work with me and make sure I have the resources I need. This also takes away the need to go explain everything when you need help when things go wrong as opposed to having them there ready to help!

3. Keep Friendly Snacks and Extra Meds at School 

I will preface this with the fact that at my school, every student gets a locker. Keeping friendly snacks on hand is great in case you need more food if you stay late, but also it’s a lifesaver if you end up having a rough day and need to revert to the basics. There have definitely been days when I go for the saltines in my locker if I am feeling super nauseous. Now if you have medications that are taken as needed or that you take in the middle of the day and have extras of, it can be useful to keep them in your backpack or locker.

There have been many instances where I used the backups in my locker if I forgot to pack my pill organizer that day or was too lazy to fill it in the morning. I usually just take a couple from the bottle when I picked up the new month’s prescription and kept a few labeled pills in my locker. You never know how late you may want to stay or if you might want to go hang out with friends, and sometimes it turns out you can’t because you didn’t bring your medicine. Having backups is so important.

4. Make Friends and Let Them Support You 

Grad school takes a village!!! That is true for healthy people in grad school and extra true for chronically ill grad students. No one knows better than your classmates the intensity that is your grad school program. They are in classes with you daily and are the ones who can, in a way, help the most. I understand wanting to keep the two separate but I found that with those I share it with, only good things have happened. And ultimately this builds your support system in a special way. Take advantage of that. For me, my PT family is the group of people who have offered great support, brought so much sunshine to rough days and are always there for me. Without them the past year would have been impossible.

5. Don’t Compare Yourself to Your Classmates 

This can be such a toxic mindset. It’s easy to slip into comparing yourself – especially your capabilities compared to theirs. In reality, no matter how hard you try, you might not be able to give all the hours your classmates do. That just means you structure your study and work time differently. At the end of the day you can reach the same results but you don’t have to put in all the same hours. Remember: they don’t have to carve out time for meds, naps and any treatments!

Above all else, remember you can do this. You may need to work differently than your classmates but that never makes you less than. You always have it within you to succeed and do well. Grad school is full of obstacles but no one is better prepared to face those obstacles than a spoonie!

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Thinkstock photo via Wavebreakmedia.

Originally published: August 21, 2017
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