It is my HONOR to have college student and pre-med aspiring Crohn’s Disease person, Laci Altman, as today’s Guest Blogger with her suggestions for how to handle school (even high school) when you have an Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) like Crohn’s Disease. Laci’s point that “school is not a race” is something I can relate to because I got VERY sick while in law school and had to learn most of 1st Year while hospitalized. I was only able to do this because in the back of my mind I knew that I’d become an attorney, no matter how many years law school took me in case I had to drop-out of 1st Year. That “confidence” and logic (which I was lucky to acquire from close friends and family members) helped me successfully pursue my dream despite my disabling Crohn’s Disease. This is an important point because many SEVERE IBD patients are forced to change their career plans in one way or another and I am here to tell you, and Laci backs that up, it is okay to take all the time you need to follow your dreams and that IBD need not stand in the way of your progress. So please take a moment to read her excellent suggestions and enjoy her beautiful writing style.
My name is Laci Altman, and I am a junior biology major at the University of Pittsburgh. Hail to PITT!! My plan is to attend medical school and become a GI doctor sub-specializing in IBD. I am also involved with the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America (CCFA) on a number of levels, the Crohn’s Disease Warrior Patrol (CDWP), a 501 C 3 Non-Profit dedicated to providing a global patient-to-patient Support Network and programs specific to the UPMC IBD Center. I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in February of 2012 and have been on multiple biologics, immunomodulators, and other medications, had two surgeries since then, and have been working in unison with my doctors in hopes of reaching a complete and long-lasting remission. School hasn’t been the easiest while being sick, but it’s absolutely possible. Accordingly, it is my privilege to share my experiences with you all today and I truly hope that to whom they apply, they can be of assistance. Thanks for reading! Happiness and healthiness to you all!!
So…school and IBD. Where do I even begin?
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in the second semester of my freshman year of college, just last year. I had GI troubles for a few years prior, but all of a sudden I was sick…really sick. At the time of diagnosis and throughout the rest of the semester, I was still attending school, much to my docs’ amazement. Of course I missed days or even whole weeks of some classes, but I kept up. I should have been in the hospital, but anyone that knows me realizes that I am beyond stubborn and would not let ‘some disease’ ruin my academics.
Another thing you should know about me is that I am a pure-bred academic. Learning is one of passions. Really. You can say it…’What a nerd…’ I embrace the term with every ounce of my being because yes, I am indeed a nerd and proud of it. When I was diagnosed, I really didn’t think of taking a break from school or anything of the sort, but subconsciously I equated the thought of doing so with failure. I now know that’s not even close to the truth; I withdrew from a class this semester partly because of my health. That was difficult for me. Like I said, I am stubborn. Baby steps are progress still.
Almost two years post-diagnosis I can say that even though I am slow to give myself leeway when it comes to school, I have learned many lessons and realized things that every student with IBD NEEDS TO KNOW. My points are obviously going to be geared towards college students, but can definitely be amended and/or adapted slightly for high-schoolers. In the interests of brevity, I will keep this to five ‘tips’ which I find most important:
1. Register yourself with disability center/services at your school.
This is the college version of 504 plan, with a few changes. You outline the accommodations that you think you may need should a flare happen and then the state decides whether these accommodations are appropriate given your current health status. Most schools want a new form at the start of every year. Don’t say to yourself, ‘I won’t need it.’ You may not, but if you have an unforeseen health issue and you’re not registered, your professors have no legal obligation to accommodate you in any way. That is setting yourself up for failure. Basically this is your lifeline should anything happen; be it a flare, hospitalization, etc. We hope it doesn’t happen but please, be better safe than sorry. Also important to know, and a good segway to my next point, only disclose what you feel comfortable disclosing to each professor. They are not entitled to any information about your health; all you HAVE to tell them is that you are registered with the disability center and request X, Y, Z accommodations. The decision to give your professors more info is totally up to you and is usually dependent on how well you ‘click’ with a professor.
2. Don’t constantly drown your new friends with facts about life with IBD (unless they ask).
For full disclosure, I am not advising you to keep your disease a secret and stop spreading awareness. I advocate for the exact opposite. BUT, young people (your peers) do not, and cannot, understand what living with IBD is like unless they have it themselves, which we all know. That’s why we have to ‘lay it on them slowly,’ if you will. Don’t give them your whole IBD war story in one sitting (again, unless they explicitly ask). Let them digest tiny facts here and there, all the while building a relationship so that when you do disclose your IBD story (and I do expect you to do so with good friends), it will mean so much more to them, and to you.
3. ‘Shop’ for a GI doctor that is local to your school BEFORE you begin school.
Personally, I am lucky with respect to this ‘tip.’ I live not far away from Oakland, PA (the home of PITT) so I did not have to change GI doctors. University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is on campus and it is where my GI practices, so moving to school was actually an upgrade in that I can walk to the hospital. For those of you who are going to be moving away for school or who are already going to school away from home, I suggest looking for a local GI there. If something happens while at school, you need a doctor THERE who is familiar with your case. If you go to an institution with an on-campus medical center, then this is easy to do. If not, you can find doctors on CCFA.org, via a Google search, on Angie’s List, etc. Involve your current GI in this process – as they will have to communicate with them successfully should something happen.
4. Don’t go crazy with ‘college food.’
So most of our GIs will tell us that food, what we eat, doesn’t matter. I think most of us can attest to the exact opposite, that our diet is indeed important. As we journey through life with Crohn’s Disease or Ulcerative Colitis, each of us compiles a list of ‘no-no’ foods. DO NOT completely abandon that when you start college. Your success in school is heavily dependent on your health. Before you arrive on campus, search on the school’s website for local restaurants and cafes. Make a list of places that seem like they match your diet, then search and print their menus. If you are living in a dorm or apartment with a kitchen, then this puts you in even better position to keep within your dietary boundaries. There are tons of great cook books for IBD. Pinterest is also a great place to find fun, easy, and healthy recipes for every type of diet. I’m not suggesting that you NEVER eat pizza or burgers, but don’t make unhealthy foods such as those your staples. Believe me, your intestines will thank you.
5. Understand that school is not a race.
This is probably the most important point in this post with respect to all aspects of our health; physically, mentally, emotionally. This is also something that took me a while to realize. As I stated above, I am stubborn. I am a person who wanted to graduate from undergrad in three years and go to med school when I was twenty-one years old. That’s obviously not going to happen. It took me a while to realize this, and I think it’s something that a lot of students with IBD have trouble with; we think if we have to take a semester (or years) off or withdraw from a class or two that we are never going to get where we want to be professionally, prompting some to change majors or even quit school. I’m here to tell you, rather, to assure you, that school is indeed NOT A RACE. If it takes you six or seven years to finish school instead of the standard four, that is perfectly okay. You still are going to finish school. If you take a semester or a few off, I assure you that school will be waiting for you when you’re ready to return.
“History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heartbreaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats.” -B. C. Forbes