Thriving at College with Chronic Illness

by Caitlin Joyce on October 17, 2017

Managing high school was incredibly difficult for me. On top of the usual stressors— homework, making friends, and extracurriculars— I also had to manage my health in a way that not many other students do. When I was 12, I was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS). Both are chronic illnesses that affect people in a myriad of ways, but my specific symptoms are chronic joint pain, frequent joint subluxations (partial dislocations), gastroparesis, and dizzy spells. In essence, these symptoms can be a bit of a handful. I had an extremely difficult time managing these health issues in high school, to the point where I had to do all of my schoolwork from home for the last half of my senior year.

Chronic illness and disability can often make you feel isolated and think nobody understands, but in my opinion, reaching out to others who love and support you is the most important step in managing college with these issues.

- Caitlin Joyce

Starting university was intimidating to me for multiple reasons. Independence is a big step for all incoming university freshmen, but for those with chronic illnesses or a disabilities like mine, it can be especially scary. But I’ve successfully managed to navigate through my first year of university with much more ease than I anticipated, and have excelled beyond my previous expectations. My advice may not be applicable to every case, as all chronic illnesses and disabilities require different levels of care, but here are my strategies for managing college and chronic illness: 

1. Get in contact with Health or Disability and Support Services. 

Arcadia’s Disability Support Services have been helpful from my first week at school. I made an appointment with the office in Knight Hall and met with them to discuss my case and what sort of provisions I would need to help me succeed at school. It was pretty similar to setting up a 504 plan, where you go over your health, your concerns, and what sort of help you’ll need to overcome these concerns. And it's a free service! For me, Arcadia’s Disability and Support Services wrote a document outlining what accommodations I require, saved it to my file, and also printed out a copy for me to give to my professors so they are aware of these accommodations as well. You can also see Arcadia’s Health Services for immediate help for any kind of illness, even for something like a fever or persistent cold, but thankfully I haven’t needed to see them yet!

2. Be your biggest advocate.

I know sometimes it’s difficult to talk about one’s health problems, but being proactive in talking about my conditions has helped me extraordinarily. At high school, though I did have some teachers who deeply cared for me and wanted to see me succeed, I worried at times that many other teachers wouldn’t understand or might doubt the legitimacy of my issues. I’ve had a lot of those worries eased at Arcadia. All of my professors have been accepting and accommodating, and by being very open about EDS and POTS, I’ve also found two other people on campus with the same conditions. Whenever I feel nervous about bringing it up to professors, I remind myself that many of them have been teaching for years and have seen thousands of students— a health condition or disability is nothing uncommon or unheard of to them!

Another go-to for when I'm feeling down: My cat-print heating pack, cat mug, and a nice cup of coffee.

3. Anticipate and be prepared.

This is a stressor for many disabled students (or perhaps a bigger stressor on their parents, particularly in my case), but I promise that being independent while managing your health isn’t as scary or impossible as it may seem. The biggest step is being prepared, and knowing your surroundings. Specific things I did before leaving for school are making sure I was up to date on all my medications (getting 90-day bottles instead of 30-day is a huge help), knowing the location of Health Services and Disability Services on campus, and also locating where the nearest Urgent Care or hospital is in case of an emergency. Since I have issues with joints popping out, I make sure to always carry a soft knee brace in my backpack just in case. I also tried to space my classes in a way that would allow me to navigate campus at a comfortable pace, so I won’t have to hike it from Knight Hall to Easton in 10 minutes on a bad health day.


4. Remember that it’s okay to ask for help.

I can be a pretty stubborn person at times, but I’ve come to realize that it’s okay to ask for help. If you feel like you can’t do it all on your own, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with calling your parents, contacting a professor, or reaching out to your friends. Even though I try to be independent, I still rely on my parents to help me figure out issues with doctors or how to handle specific problems. Professors want you to succeed, and many have been understanding if I’m having a really difficult day with my symptoms and can’t make it to class. And most of all, sometimes on a bad day there’s nothing better than a gentle hug from my friends and having their support. Chronic illness and disability can often make you feel isolated and think nobody understands, but in my opinion, reaching out to others who love and support you is the most important step in managing college with these issues. Taking care of yourself also means taking care of your emotional needs, which are just as important as your medical ones, too.

Disability Support Services is located on the first floor of Knight Hall, and can be reached at 215-572-4033. 

Learn more about DSS