Health Uncategorized

Chronic Illness While a Graduate Student

Hi everyone! I’m Alison from Simply A, and I’m really excited to be guest-posting today on Kate’s blog! When Kate asked what kind of guest post I wanted to write, I had a few ideas floating around. I first started reading Kate’s blog because I was looking for people who understood what it was like to have a chronic illness, especially one that was difficult to diagnose. Kate’s blog really spoke to me, because not only is she a smart and funny woman, she has a lot of big life goals and she doesn’t let her illness get in her way. I knew that I wanted to write something that would be a good fit with Kate’s usual blog topics, and since Kate is in the process of going  back to school, I felt like a post about being a graduate/professional student while managing a chronic illness would be just the thing!

The “Reader’s Digest Condensed Version” of my health story is that in 2005, I was a freshman in college and after a particularly bad bout with the flu, I never quite bounced back. I had a lot of joint and bone pain, fevers, rashes, and I was so tired that I could barely go to class. In the intervening 10 years between then and now, my symptoms have come and gone, and I have seen countless physicians, most of whom had no idea what to do with me. Finally, in 2013, I found an excellent rheumatologist and I was diagnosed with Undifferentiated Connective Tissue Disease, which is essentially a bunch of fancy words for, “Some autoimmune disease that could possible be Lupus or RA, but we’re really not sure, but there’s definitely something not right here.” 
As you can imagine, I haven’t exactly been sitting around for 10 years doing nothing, and in fact, graduated with my BS in Biology, my MPH in Epidemiology, and am now a first year medical student. It wasn’t always easy, and in fact, I had quite a few bumps along the way, but I also learned a lot. Obviously, everyone’s health situation is different, but these are just some of the things I’ve figured out about having a chronic illness and still rocking the grad school life.

1. Learn to say no.

I am a people-pleaser. I also love to be involved in a lot of things. In fact, I can safely say that I have an over-responsibility problem that started in middle school and has been going strong ever since. This has been great for a lot of reasons (not the least of which being some of the things in which I was involved got me some significant scholarship money for college), but it’s also a recipe for disaster when you’re trying to be a good grad student and also not end up in a puddle of pain and exhaustion at the end of the day. If you haven’t read The Spoon Theory, it’s a great way to explain to someone what it’s like to have a chronic illness. Once I realized that med school was going to take practically all of my spoons (and then some), saying “no” became slightly easier. I have to prioritize my health first, and then rearrange everything underneath that as things change. It’s hard, but I actually get to do more this way, and I really appreciate any time I spend doing something that isn’t school-related!


2. Get help!

Reach out to your school’s disability services office, preferably before the school year starts. This was really difficult for me to do, mainly because I don’t really think of myself as having a disability. However, after being burned in undergrad by not having documentation of a chronic illness, I always make sure that I know who is in charge of the office and what I need to do to document my illness and what I may need. Even if I never use the accomodations I have, I know that if I were to get sick or need assistance, the paperwork is all on the books and I can get the help that I need. And don’t worry; anything you tell your disability services office or student affairs is strictly confidential!

3. Prevention is best, but have a contingency plan. (Or 3)

You always want things to go the way they’re supposed to, but sometimes (a lot of the time, if you have a chronic illness), it just doesn’t happen that way. Graduate or professional school can be incredibly stressful for long periods of time, and also very isolating. I know from personal experience that eating right, getting enough sleep, and maintaining any sort of normal schedule often goes out the window during exam weeks, and that means that I am basically asking for a flare. I have fortunately only had 2 relatively minor flares since starting med school, but I was able to handle them thanks to my rheumatologist, my husband, and my classmates. If you don’t have a plan for what happens when you get sick or feel a flare coming on, now is the time to make one. When do you need to call your doctor? When should you go straight to the ER? What kind of over-the-counter medications can you take for your various symptoms? If you do have one, make sure to go over it with your doctors and your family. Obviously, try your best to take care of yourself physically and mentally (more on that in a bit), but if the inevitable happens, it’s way less stressful to know that there’s a plan in place to help you out.

4. Don’t neglect your mental and emotional health!

Having completed one graduate program and began another (ahem, twice), I cannot overstate the importance of taking care of your mental health in addition to your physical health. I have dealt with anxiety and depression for most of my life, and even though I was really well-controlled prior to entering med school the first time, I nearly lost it all when I didn’t take care of myself. The stress of being a graduate student comes from many places – finances, social and family relationships, the schoolwork itself, and the pressure to achieve and do well can be overwhelming. If you’re like me and already have a history of mental illness, this can quickly turn into a perfect storm situation. I see a therapist on a weekly basis, and I also see a psychiatrist every 6 weeks (or more frequently, if necessary). I also have an awesome support network of both med school and non-med school people that I can talk to or lean on. I tell people to “keep a finger on their emotional pulse” and make sure that if you feel something starting to go wrong that you address it early. If you find yourself in need of a counselor during the school year, your school’s student health office should be able to help you. Counseling at the school is kept entirely confidential, and they will be able to refer you to a outside therapist or counselor if you need it. Your brain is just one part of you that got you into grad school; don’t let it be the undoing of your success!

5. Take ownership.

It was your hard work and dedication that got you into graduate school, and the way you’ll finish is by being responsible. Only you can be responsible for your health and wellness. This means making sure that you get enough sleep, eat well, exercise, (which… is something I’m not good at, so… do as I say, not as I do!) and try to regulate your stress levels. There have been a few times this semester where things haven’t gone my way, healthwise, and my grades definitely suffered for it. My school was really supportive of me with rescheduling exams from when I was sick, but I knew that I was the only person who could fix the issue going forward. No one else can manage your life, and if you do take responsibility for it, you get to also take responsibility for your achievements!

6. Find the good!

It’s really easy to get bogged down in how hard graduate or professional school can be. There are a few good things that having a chronic illness has done for me though. Having been a patient for so long, I feel like I really understand the frustration that someone can feel while trying to wade through the medical system to get proper care. I feel like I am more empathic than I was before, and that I can use that in my practice as a physician. For better or worse, my patience has been tested time and time again, so I am learning how to be less anxious while waiting for things to happen, or when things are out of my control (definitely still learning, though!) I’ve also really been able to take pride in what I’ve accomplished or been able to get through, despite the health issues that have come up along the way. Having a chronic illness is dertainly a facet of my life that colors a lot of my interactions, but it has shaped the woman I am and the woman I’m becoming, and that woman is pretty cool.

There are so many more things that I could talk about with regards to chronic illness, mental health, and med school, and if you want to read about it, you can start here, here, or here! Thanks again to Kate for letting me take over her space here on the internet, and I hope to see you around on Simply A!

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