Preparing to Leave for College with a Chronic Illness

Many people attend college while dealing with a chronic illness.

ESB Professional /

Being diagnosed with a chronic illness can be overwhelming in and of itself, without throwing college into the mix. There is the seemingly endless stream of doctor’s appointments to figure out what may be wrong in the first place and then even more to figure out what medication works best or to decide on management techniques. After that, there are the checkups and the tests that are needed to ensure that the illness is kept under control. There may be feelings of embarrassment or shame every time that the disease needs to be explained to friends or teachers. There may be fear for what the illness means for the future. Eventually though, life takes on a new normal.

But all of that can be thrown into chaos when you add in college. College can mean moving. It can mean being away from your doctor for long periods of time. It can mean that you’re all of a sudden “out of network” when it comes to your health insurance. It can mean teachers not understanding why you have to miss class for a week due to an illness that they cannot see. These are all manageable, though, and this blog will give those of you with chronic illnesses a jumping-off point when it comes to dealing with your disease while you’re in college.

Having regular checkups is one way to deal with your chronic illness at college.

Stuart Jenner /

  • Have another checkup before you leave. If you’re all set to start school away from home in the fall, it’s a good idea to have one last checkup in the summer before you leave. This way you can get refills on any prescriptions that you will need to bring with you, get a referral for a specialist in the town where you’ll be living, and make sure that there are no new symptoms or problems that need treatment. Make another appointment to see your regular doctor over winter break.
  • Bring a copy of your medical records. These are going to be your best friend when you visit a new doctor or need to go to the local urgent care. Instead of trying to remember the names of the treatments you’ve had or the medications that you are on, you can show the doctors your records and they’ll instantly have a better picture of your illness than you could describe. You may also want to show your medical records to your campus’ disability office and health clinic.
  • Check your insurance. The worst thing about insurance is that what may work beautifully when you are at home could cost a fortune in another location when the doctors you are visiting are suddenly deemed “out of network.” Most insurance companies allow you to look up in-network providers on their websites. Do this before you choose a provider in your new location; it will save you a bunch of money.
  • Find a local doctor. Having someone who you can visit in case of emergency is a must. If you require a specialist, have your primary care doctor send you a referral and then follow up with the doctor in your college town. If you can’t get a referral, do a little research. You can even call the office before you get there and explain your situation and that you’d like to establish the doctor as a caregiver while you are at school. If you would prefer to use the campus health clinic, make sure that its providers are able to accommodate your illness. Campus clinics have a bad reputation of being the go-to place for birth control and STD checks, so talk to one of the doctors there about your illness before making a decision. Whatever you choose, make sure that they take your health insurance so you don’t get stuck paying excessive out-of-pocket fees.
  • Find a local pharmacy. It’s important that you have a pharmacy nearby in case you need refills of any medicine that you take regularly, but also if a situation arises where you need prescription medications for a period of time. Make sure that it takes your insurance. Sometimes campus health clinics are able to fill prescriptions, but it may take longer if you need something that isn’t regularly prescribed. Talking to a nurse or doctor at the campus clinic will help you decide if you want to use them or if you want to find a bigger, national pharmacy, like CVS or Walgreens.
  • Talk to your school’s disability office. You may not identify as disabled, but this office will be full of people who know how to help you. Bring documentation of your illness, be able to describe what may happen over the course of a semester (transfusions, flare-ups, hospitalizations, chemotherapy, etc.), and be honest about any recommendations for accommodations that your doctor may have provided. If you need to be exempt from a meal plan or have special requests for housing, these are the people who will be able to help you submit your requests. Talking to the administrators in this office and making them aware of your situation may also protect you in the case that you have to withdraw from school for a period of time, protecting both your financial and academic interests.
  • Bring a car to campus. If you will need to make frequent doctor’s visits, trips to the pharmacy, and sojourns to the hospital, bring your car to campus. Talk with the transportation office if your school doesn’t normally allow cars on campus and ask it to make a medical exception; you may be able to take care of this while you are talking to the disability office as well. Bring documentation of your illness and a list of reasons why you will routinely need to leave campus.
  • Stay up-to-date on vaccines. Most colleges require that students prove they have certain vaccines, but for students who may be chronically ill, getting extra vaccines beyond what is required (such as for the seasonal flu or pneumonia) may prevent an illness which could complicate the chronic disease. However, this works both ways.
  • Be open with your professors. If you have registered your illness with your institution’s disability office, your professors will likely already know about you and any accommodations that you need. However, putting a name to a face and having an upfront meeting may decrease hardships in the long run. Make your professors aware that you are a good student and will attend class and submit assignments on time whenever possible. If you know in advance that you will have doctor’s appointments or hospital visits during their classes, tell them as soon as possible. You may be able to get ahead on your work and not end up missing too much when the time comes.
    • If you have a professor who is unwilling to accommodate you despite a documented illness, you can talk to the disability office or the dean of students. These administrators will be able to advocate for you against the professor and hopefully reach an agreement that is satisfying to all parties. They will also be able to help you identify if the professor is discriminating against you based on your disability, which is against the law. (That being said, if you have a professor who refuses to accommodate you or makes a fuss about it one semester, don’t take another class with him or her again.)
  • Confide in a couple of friends. Starting college and making friends can be hard, but having a supportive environment can make everything seem easier, even when your illness is causing problems and you’re missing classes. You don’t have to advertise to everyone you meet that you have a chronic illness, and it’s not the business of the general public anyway, but having one or two close friends who you can confide in when you’re feeling depressed or scared can help you cope with your illness. Your roommate(s) may be a good place to start.
    Talking to professors and the disability office about your chronic illness, like the girl in this photo, will make life easier. /

  • Watch your stress level. Crazy high levels of stress coupled with no sleep wreak havoc on healthy college students. As a student with a chronic illness, you need to be aware of when your emotions and academic obligations are taking a toll on your body to prevent your illness from showing its face. If you find that the stress of school is enough to make you sick, it’s okay to let some of your obligations go. Maybe you don’t sign on to do the 5:00 a.m. radio show again, for instance, or you pick up yoga instead of an extra class. Listen to your body. When you need to take a break, take a break.

Depending on the nature of your disease, it may be better to study part-time, take online classes, or enroll in a college closer to home, where you can be near family, keep going to your regular doctor, and live at home. However, if you have your illness under control, you should be able to have the same college experience as anyone else. Talk to your doctor, your family, and your school about any concerns that you have and be ready to back up your statements with documentation and medical records.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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