"What matters most is how well you walk through the fire" -- Charles Bukowski

Friday, July 22, 2011

College and Chronic Illness: The Basic First Steps to Take: Part I

Going to college can be a scary experience for anyone, but throw a chronic illness (or multiple) into that mix and you’re bound to feel lost at some point.

This will be part one of a long series. I will do specific in-depth posts on certain aspects— dorm life, for example, will be a singular extensive post. For now, here you have The Basics: Preparing for School Part I

The Basics:

  1. Choosing a college: There are a few things to look for in a university if you have a chronic illness. Aside from finding a school that fits your personality, social, and academic goals, it is imperative that you do a little research to find a school that will only encourage your sense of well-being.
    • You will need to have access to medical care. Research what hospitals are in the area of your prospective school, read up on their on-campus health resources (including mental health resources— trust me on this one).
    • Determine if the school has an on-campus pharmacy or what pharmacies are near by. If there is no on-campus pharmacy, is there one that delivers (CVS does, by the way)? Will you have a car? Are you well enough to use off campus buses to get to a pharmacy?
    • Consider size, location— how far away you will be from your doctor, your home, parents, etc.
    • Consider terrain and weather— are you going to have a difficult time with the cold or snow in the winter? Are there a lot of hills? Consider ways to combat these elements.
    • Dietary needs and what food services the university offers— do the dining halls serve gluten free food, lactose-free food, etc.?

  2. TOUR AND CONTACT. DO NOT pass this up.
    • Tour the prospective or chosen university. Let your tour guide know early on if you will need any kind of assistance walking or during the tour. Ask for a wheelchair if you tire easily— it will save you and your guide the stress of finding a chair mid-tour. Bring water and wear comfortable shoes.
    • Check out their health center and contact the department head of the center to schedule an appointment. If possible, meet with them to discuss your illness and what they can do for you at their clinic.
      • Good questions to ask: What services do you offer? Do you offer lab services? What are your hours? What is the best course of action to take if I need health care after your hours? Is there one specific physician I can see each time I come in so they are familiar with me and my medical history/conditions? Is there a physician with experience in dealing with my specific illness? (If so, get this contact information asap) Do you have a campus pharmacy? What is the best way to contact someone if I have concerns?

    • Take note of the housing options available and note which you think would work well for you. Meeting with someone from housing to discuss getting a handicapped-accessible room or a specific type of dorm is a great idea- there are always specific steps you have to take to do this, including paperwork and doctor clearance, so it is extremely important to take care of these steps as early as possible before attending school.
    • Check out their gym and athletic facilities. Find out if they offer physical therapy or if they have specific rehab facilities.
    • Meet with an admissions counselor to discuss your illness, your major, and how you can work together. This would be a good time to ask what tutoring resources they have for your major and selected courses. If possible, do the same with your Dean or the Dean of Undergraduate Students to discuss your situation and inquire about what the university can offer you.
    • While you tour, take notes about what you like, what you don’t like, questions you have, etc., that way you can go home and make a list of pros/cons when comparing schools. Take note of all the people you meet/have appointments with. Get business cards if you can. I will touch on this later.
    • Health and time permitting, see if you can arrange to stay with a friend on campus for a night to get an idea of what dorm life is like on campus. What you see on a tour vs. the real thing is often quite different.

  3. Student Disability Centers. Aside from contacting your Dean, admissions officer, and the health center, contact your Student Disability Resource Center. Every campus has one. These departments will work with you to create a game plan of sorts and help you in how to discuss your needed accommodations/illness with your professors. Their job is to accommodate you, not the other way around. Ask what services they offer, ask for a tour of their center if they have their own building, and alert them to what you will need from them. It might even be a good idea to go online to read about services offered and see if content generates any questions. Bringing a list of accommodations you may require is a good idea— discuss this with whoever you meet with. Take note of names of people who help you and get business cards!
    • Good questions to ask: What services do you offer? What paperwork do I need to complete to be eligible for accommodations? I have (insert illness), have you accommodated others with this and do you have any suggestions? Will you work with me to alert professors of my needed accommodations? Do you offer on campus handicapped transportation? Do I need a special university permit to use campus handicapped parking spots? Can I register for classes early (I’ll go in depth with this later). Do you have a physical therapy/rehab center? How do I become eligible for PT on campus?
  4. Plan for all circumstances AHEAD OF TIME. If you know going into college that you have a debilitating chronic illness or condition, sit down and think about accommodations you will need long before leaving home. Make a written list so you can keep track without forgetting your ideas. Consider housing, class work (excused absences, extended deadlines, note-takers), transportation and parking (disabled parking spaces/permits), medical care, health insurance, pharmacy location, and planning your classes to your buildings are close together or easy to get to. I will discuss each of these categories in detail later.
  5. Paperwork. To work with your disability center, you will almost always have to fill out paperwork and have your physician(s) verify your condition(s). Asking for and receiving this paperwork as early as possible will save you time and frustration in the long run.
  6. Do your college shopping early. Seriously, do it early. The few weeks before Fall semester, the shelves begin to clear out. Start in June/July in small trips. Make a check list. I will post a great list of things to bring that will make moving in and dorm living easier with chronic illness. You’ll see a link here eventually.
  7. Thank Yous! Remember all of those names I told you to remember? Break out some thank you cards and write thank you notes. Thank them for their time and help, tell them if they eased some of your fears, etc. It will not only put a smile on their face, but it will also help you establish contacts which you will come to find are extremely valuable. This little act of kindness goes a long way. Keep all of those business cards, by the way. I suggest putting their info into a spread sheet or phone book— whichever works for you.

Up next: Part 2- Preparing for School Part II : College shopping, choosing housing, what to bring, preparing for and picking classes, important tasks to accomplish before leaving.

Then: Part 3: Your First Semester: Coping skills and creating a low-stress college lifestyle; what to do if something happens; dealing with new professors, a new environment, and social life.

At the end of everything, I will post a check list as a PDF file to keep organized. Checklist 1 will consist of questions to ask and preparation steps, check list 2 will be a “what to bring to college with a chronic illness” list, and checklist 3 will be an “after acceptance, getting affairs in order” list.
I’ve received a flood of questions about college and chronic illness. The more questions I get, the more I have to address in these posts. If you have a specific question or concern, send it to me! I always appreciate feedback or content suggestions. At the very least I can send you some resources or point you in the right direction if I don’t have an answer.

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