Chronic Illness And Higher Education: Strange Bedfellows Or Bitter Rivals?

Leslie Rott Health Guide
  • The 2011-2012 school year will quickly be upon us. And as I think about all of my commitments, I’m not really looking all that much forward to it. Along with working on my dissertation, I am a teaching assistant, a faculty/staff mentor for a small group of incoming students, involved with disability issues on campus, volunteering at a local hospital, taking kickboxing once a week, and I’m sure there are other things I’m not remembering just now.


    That’s a pretty full plate when school hasn’t even started yet. And then there’s the whole chronic illness thing.


    When it comes to school and illness, you get the same shocked look when you put one over the other. I remember when I needed steroid infusions a few weeks after I was diagnosed, at the end of my first year of graduate school, the infusion nurse was ready to schedule them the next week. And I politely told her, since they were happening in the hospital that they would have to wait until school was over. She acted like I was from another planet. Why would I want to wait, and blah, blah, blah. I told her that I didn’t want to have to worry about having to get anything emergent done, since I would be sporting an IV for three days.

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    Such is life. I have received a similar response when I have rarely put off school-related things for doctors’ appointments and treatments. And maybe this is why I have felt many times that school and chronic illness are inherently opposed. You can’t win for losing. Regardless of which you put in front of the other, you get the same response. That you’re thinking too much about one and not enough about the other.


    I always have to wonder which commitment will put me over my threshold point, and my body will tell me that I have overcommitted myself. You would have thought that after several years of dealing with illness – and graduate school, for that matter – I would have learned how stupid it is for me to commit myself to so many things. But I want to be competitive.


    And that’s the problem. To be competitive in school means that my health will undoubtedly take a hit. But to be competitive health-wise means that school will have to take a hit. It’s a lose-lose situation.


    I wish I had the magic formula for how to make school and chronic illness work together, but I don’t. It’s a tough balance and probably one I will never perfect.


    Obviously the issues that are faced by undergraduate students who are chronically ill are different than that of grad students. Undergrads typically have a full load of classes, and other extracurricular commitments. For me, at least in my program, the first two and a half years were full of the classes. Now, other than teaching, most of my work can be done when I want to do it (within reason). The difference between undergrad and grad is that in undergrad it’s okay to ask for help. And get it. But in academia, you aren’t supposed to mention personal issues. And this “vow of silence” is the biggest struggle that I think grad students and faculty face when dealing with chronic illness.


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    There are times that I thought I wouldn’t survive grad school AND chronic illness. I remember at the end of my first grad school semester, I had four take-home finals I had to write. I was so stiff and in so much pain that I would sit and write for about twenty minutes, and then I would have to lie down and nap for an hour. I truly did not think I would be able to do it. But I did.


    I also recall the summer before my third year, when I had to take a comprehensive exam – eight hours worth of essay writing. After fighting with my department, they allowed me to split the exam over two days, instead of one. So I did four hours the day before the official prelim, and four hours the next day. And thank goodness I did. On the official prelim day, the computer lab was freezing, and by the end, I was so stiff and in pain, I never would have survived if I would have had another four hours in front of me.


    So I’m no expert. Sometimes workarounds don’t work. Sometimes going so far as asking for help is for naught. But for both undergrads and grad students dealing with chronic illness, the best advice I can offer is that you find someone to advocate for you, someone who will go to bat when you have a problem and are getting the runaround. Even better, find a support group, or create your own, of people who understand what you are going through and are supportive. That has been the most helpful thing for me. It took a long time, but I have a group of three other amazing grad student women who are dealing with various chronic health issues.


    That is one thing I am looking forward to. The four of us have had really busy summers and I can’t wait to see them again in the fall, once school starts. They are really what keeps me going through it all, through the ups and downs of grad school and chronic illness. And I know how lucky I am to have them in my life. If you are student with chronic illness, that is my wish for you, too. And of course, if you really can’t find this type of support in person, there is always online support.

Published On: August 22, 2011