Navigating Crohn’s & College During a Pandemic
College student Kaitlyn Trevathan shares advice on balancing IBD, school…and everything else going on in the world.
Kaitlyn Trevathan is a 20-year-old Junior majoring in biology at Erskine College in Due West, SC. She recently returned to campus after a summer of quarantining at home with her family, while also adjusting to life after a new Crohn’s diagnosis, which she received on February 3, 2020. We spoke with Kaitlyn about how she has adapted to all of these changes, and what it’s like being a student with a chronic condition right now.
So, you’ve recently started back to school. What has your semester been like so far?
It’s been going well. We have to stay six feet apart, and biology labs are only two hours long now, as opposed to four, because they split the class half and half. Campus wide, they have a temperature check-in each day. We have an app where you select what symptoms, if any, you have that day. Each student without symptoms or a fever receives a sticker that teachers, cafe workers, and coaches check to admit us to things like classes and meals.
Being an athlete is tough–I throw shot put for the track and field team–because we have to wear a mask all the time during practice. But other than that, it has felt like a surprisingly normal campus experience.
Tell us about your Crohn’s journey and how it has impacted your college life.
My symptoms started to flare up my freshman year. I went to a doctor on campus, and they told me I had colon cancer. So, for about a month before I could get into a GI specialist back home, I thought I had cancer, which was scary. I was going home about every other week for doctor’s appointments before I was finally diagnosed with Crohn’s disease earlier this year. I’ve never had a semester of college where I’ve gotten to stay at college the whole time.
This year has been great–a few weeks ago, I found out that I’m in microbial remission! Which means my colon is clear, but I still have symptoms. It hasn’t really changed my day-to-day life because I still have to take my medication, do my essential oils (I use doTerra oils to help with my nausea and digestive issues), do yoga, and try to stay relaxed and calm. But I’m starting to be able to eat more now. I can have a sandwich and a side for lunch or dinner and not feel like I’m going to throw it all up, when before I wasn’t able to keep much down other than snacks throughout the day.
Have you felt worried about your COVID-19 risk since you’ve been back on campus? What have you done to stay safe?
I switched to an apartment this year on campus, so I live with three girls and we share a bathroom. We sometimes have specific friends over whom we know are taking COVID seriously, and we’ll ask them, “Are you symptom free? Did you get cleared by a temperature check?” We all have to feel comfortable before we decide to let them come in. Once they leave, we normally spray everything with disinfectant and do all the dishes.
Because my Crohn’s symptoms put me at higher risk for COVID complications, I have to go to a separate location on campus to get my temperature checked, which is kind of inconvenient. But it’s worth it in the end, for safety reasons.
I know you moved into campus housing and are living with one of your roommates for the first time. How did you broach the conversation about your condition with her?
Two of my roommates are also my teammates, so they already understood what I was going through from previous years. My other roommate was a random match. I emailed her before she signed up and said, “We want you to be our roommate. However, I want you to know that I do have Crohn’s disease. It affects my whole digestive tract, so I get ulcers and have really bad nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms. This is what that means, and I totally get it if you don’t want to room with us, but that’s how my life is.”
She was like, “That’s cool, thanks for telling me!” It hasn’t caused a problem yet. I don’t normally tell people my whole life story up front, but from a roommate standpoint, it helped us be able to open up quickly and start that friendship.
What is something that people your age tend to misunderstand about Crohn’s?
I went two years without a diagnosis, and the first year I had symptoms, a lot of people thought I might have an eating disorder. I lost about 30 pounds in one semester just from not being able to hold food down.
But now that I’ve been diagnosed and understand my Crohn’s, most of my friends want to know about it. When I can’t do something because of my condition, they’re pretty understanding and want to know more about what it is and what it means for me.
Do you have any life hacks or tips that have helped you navigate this transition with Crohn’s?
Eat healthy! Also, I find a friend in every class who is a good note-taker. I’ll tell them, “Hey, I have Crohn’s disease, so I have to go to the bathroom a lot, and there are days when I can’t get out of bed. If I ever text you for notes, can I count on you to send me good notes?”
Talk to your professors early on. You’re going to miss class; it’s inevitable. I’ve been fortunate that my professors are very understanding and are willing to help. They’ll make an excused absence for me when I’m sick, even when I don’t have a doctor’s note.
I’m also in a group chat with a bunch of college students with IBD, and people have all kinds of other accommodations set up for themselves. Some professors don’t allow you to go to the bathroom during class, and they’ll have accommodations to where they can go. They have a personal note-taker, like the TA or student aide who will take their notes for them when they’re sick.
You’re in an IBD student group chat? How cool!
Yes! In April of this year, I made an Instagram account purely for Crohn’s because I had been finding people through the social media community. I wanted a page where I could share my journey to help pay it forward, as well as see what other people are doing. One of the girls I met through there, we clicked very fast and decided to make a GroupMe for other students with IBD, so we can share advice and encouragement. It started as 10 people, and now we have 50, ranging from freshmen in high school to seniors in college or just out of college.
It’s great. On colonoscopy prep days, someone will say, “Hey, I’m going through prep, anybody have some encouragement?” Everybody will lift that person up and say, “Drink through a straw, eat some ice, eat a popsicle, you’ve got this.” I love it. And none of us have even met in person.
If someone reading this wants to join, message my Crohn’s account @trusting.my.gut on Instagram, and I’ll add you!
Any other words of wisdom for young people navigating a Crohn’s diagnosis?
Take it one day at a time. It sucks, it really does, but it gets better. You’re going to have your down days–but at the end of the day, it’s still your life. Own it. Your Crohn’s disease doesn’t own you.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.