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Managing chronic illness in college

Suzanne Shaffer

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Starting college presents a unique set of stressors. Students are away from home, possibly for the first time. In somewhat unfamiliar surroundings, they must cope with a rigorous academic schedule and a new and intense social life.

If your student lives with a chronic illness like asthma or diabetes, they have the added challenge of managing their condition.

The condition is a constant even though, at any given time, a student with chronic illness may be ill or well. Your student may be quite independent when it comes to self-care; nevertheless, at college, they really will be on their own and wholly responsible for making doctor’s appointments, refilling and remembering to take prescription medication, dealing with a flare-up, and more.

Fortunately, colleges have improved their services for students living with chronic illness. Leaning on these services can help your student adjust more smoothly to campus life. Here are guidelines for you both.

Collect your student’s medical records.

Gather all records, past lab results and scans. Your student should keep copies at hand or make sure they’re easily accessible online or in a folder on their computer. Have extra copies ready to give to any doctor who may need to treat your student. You will also need documentation if your student will seek academic, housing and/or dining accommodations at college. On that subject…

Visit the office of accessibility/disability services.

Not all students with a chronic illness qualify for or require accommodations. But if your student received accommodations in high school or might need them now because of the particular challenges of college life (a sprawling campus, classes held at many different locations at different times of day, etc.), make an appointment with this office as soon as possible so that accommodations can be in place before school starts. (Orientation is the perfect time to do this, but if orientation doesn’t take place until move-in, you might want to make an extra trip over the summer.)

At the appointment, discuss your student’s needs. It could be something as simple as a special diet, help with transportation or a request for a first-floor residence hall room. If your student foresees the need for extensions on tests and papers, or someone to help take notes during lectures, they should communicate this now.

Visit the college health center.

Schedule an appointment over the summer, at move-in or very early in the fall to connect with the clinic staff. Your student should familiarize staff with their condition and ask if anyone on staff is trained to treat it. The health center will need a copy of your student’s medical records explaining current treatment. Ask about after-hours services and the location of the nearest hospital equipped to handle emergencies.

With attention to self-care, a strong network of support, and appropriate accommodations, your student should be able to enjoy the college experience as much as anyone!

Find a doctor.

Before the move to campus, locate a specialist nearby. If possible, make an appointment and have your student bring their medical records. Discuss how the doctor can help your student manage their illness while in college.

Stress the importance of staying healthy.

Your student should get plenty of rest, eat the right foods, and maintain their treatment plan. Staying up all night or binging on fast food isn’t a good idea when dealing with a chronic illness. They should keep to their routine as much as possible and monitor their health carefully. It’s important to pace themselves and not do more than their illness allows.

Speak with professors.

If your student receives accommodations and is registered with disability/accessibility services, their professors will have this information. Your student can request a private meeting with each professor to talk about how the professor can best support them in class.

Students who don’t receive accommodations can choose to alert their professors to the fact that they live with a chronic illness. If flare-ups are causing them to miss class frequently or need extensions on assignments, it may be time to revisit the need for academic accommodations. Meanwhile, staff at the campus health or counseling center or another specialist who is caring for your student can document the illness.

Stay in touch.

Your student is an adult now, but you can still stay abreast of their health. Be sure that there are health information release forms* on file both with your home health care provider and with the college health center and any local practitioner your student may consult. This way you can be included in conversations about symptoms as well as treatment options. In addition, it’s a good idea to have a medical power of attorney so you can make medical decisions for your student if necessary.

You know your student, and are acquainted with their illness, better than anyone. Be ready to share advice whenever they need it.

Know when it’s time to go home.

Sometimes a chronic illness causes major interruptions to a student’s college experience. Perhaps frequent hospitalizations have meant missing so many classes that, even with extra time on assignments, they can’t stay on top of their coursework. In this case it might be time to take a leave of absence for a semester. While they are home, your student may be able to take a class or two online, and when they return consider a lighter course load or a mix of in-person and online classes.


*Learn more about the privacy implications of HIPAA — the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act — by clicking here.



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Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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