I was in the middle of frantically writing down the mechanism for an allylic bromination reaction when the familiar “215” number popped up on my phone. Jumping out of my seat, I felt all eyes in the organic chemistry lecture turned towards me as I sprinted up the steps, burst out of the lecture hall, and breathlessly answered the call from my gastroenterologist. My test results had come back, and I needed to go to the emergency room as soon as possible. As I sat in the hospital bed with an IV pumping fluids into my right arm and a handful of orgo flashcards on the left, I barely had the energy to sit up, let alone study for my exam next week.
During the spring of my senior year of high school, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder that falls under the category of Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). The disease is characterized by inflammation throughout the digestive tract, resulting in chronic pain, fatigue, and an overall shitty situation (pun intended). Fortunately for me, at the time of my diagnosis I also had a severe case of senioritis. Rather than doing homework, I devoted a significant amount of time to my physical health, which included frequent medical testing, doctors appointments, and rest.
Thus, when I entered my freshman year at Penn, I not only had to adjust to college life, but also life as a student with chronic illness. Before the semester even began, I met with Student Disabilities Services (SDS) to go through paperwork and to set up my testing accommodations, which provide me with a certain amount of “break time” to use the bathroom. I am also allowed to bring snacks during long exams, as it is usually gentler on my stomach to eat many small meals throughout the day.
Other students at Penn are always surprised when I decline group study invitations in order to do work in my room. How do you concentrate? What about a coffee shop or a library? At this point, I usually come up with some excuse about how I don’t want to walk or carry my books and laptop. In reality, however, the decision isn’t much of choice, but rather a necessity, simply due to the close proximity of my toilet.
While services at Penn like SDS have been incredibly helpful during exams, going about the life of a college student is often a challenge because of the uncertainty of my disease. Even on a good day, I am almost always in some sort of pain, which can make it hard to concentrate during lectures and office hours. On a bad day, I am too weak to get out of bed, let alone go to class. And although Penn InTouch allows you to submit an absence report to your professors, getting the lecture notes can be difficult, especially if the class isn’t recorded.
I’ve met with numerous Penn advisors to discuss my academics and admission prospects for medical school. When Crohn’s inevitably comes up in the conversation, I’m often asked, “Do you think this will be a temporary thing?” Actually, if you look up “chronic” in the dictionary, temporary is often the first antonym. Although illnesses may be in remission for months at a time, and current medications can assist with symptoms, ultimately many chronic illnesses are incurable.
Beyond academics, participating in the social life of a college student can also be incredibly difficult as someone with a chronic illness. If I don’t get at least nine hours of sleep each night, there is a high chance that my delicate immune system will fail, resulting in a cold or the flu. When my friends or the clubs that I’m involved with plan dinners or BYO’s, I have to call the restaurant ahead of time to ensure that they can accommodate all of my dietary restrictions (no dairy, red meat, sugar, sauces, oil, complex carbohydrates, dressings, spices, seeds, nuts or uncooked veggies—just to name a few). People are always shocked when I tell them I can’t drink alcohol (sugars!), or that I basically survive on Houston sushi (white rice California rolls, no soy sauce).
Life as a student, especially here, is already stressful enough, but adding a chronic illness to all of that brings an entirely new dimension of instability. It’s difficult to find a balance between caring for your illness and pushing yourself towards success. Like so many others here, I’ve always been a perfectionist, and it’s easier to blame myself when I don’t get the grades I want rather than admit that sometimes the situation is out of my control entirely. I’ll think back to the night that I went to sleep at 8 p.m. because I couldn’t bear the pain any longer, or to the times I missed class to get blood–work and testing done, and tell myself that I should’ve tried harder.
But I also wouldn’t be the person I am today if I didn’t receive my Crohn’s diagnosis. I always had an interest in pursuing a career in medicine, but it wasn’t until I understood the significance that the role of a gastroenterologist can have to someone with IBD that I decided that I wanted to go into GI care, and use my own experiences to connect with future patients. So during the spring of my freshman year, I received my EMT certification and joined MERT, which allowed me to start interacting with patients. Since then, I’ve learned how to better listen to my body in order to determine when I can push myself and when I simply need rest. And although I’m still working through my self–doubts, just making it through each day here at Penn is more proof that it will take a lot more than a chronic illness to keep me from finding my way.
Kaitlyn Boyle is a sophomore from Cherry Hill, New Jersey studying biology and biochemistry.
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