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Medical Student Perspectives: Living with a Chronic Illness During Medical School.

As we go through medical school the amount of information we learn is spectacular. We learn about so many illnesses in books and then on the wards we apply this knowledge to the patient. The patient is the one who helps us incorporate all the information into a useful and memorable lesson. For some medical students, this lesson hits a little too close to home. Living with a chronic illness during medical school can be a difficult yet rewarding experience.

Adapting to the lifestyle of a medical student is one of the most dramatic changes anyone can experience. Making that adjustment while also having a chronic illness makes it even more challenging. Throughout your life, adapting to different situations will seem easier when compared to those first months of medical school. The level of stress during the first semester of medical school can seem overwhelming when compared to life before first-year orientation. That being said, open discussion regarding managing stress is critical, particularly for those who must balance medical school with chronic illness.

There are many resources to help along the way. The student affairs office at your school is the perfect place to talk to someone about the issues that are disrupting your transition into your new and wonderful life as a medical student. You may also want to speak to the dean about the challenges you are facing. Being honest with your school’s administration will be helpful should you need flexibility in making up class requirements due to unexpected absences.

Find out if it will be possible to get in contact with other people at your medical school who may be dealing with the same illness. Sometimes being able to talk to someone who has faced similar challenges can be comforting and can give you hope.

Find out if your school has a disability resource center. Most schools have a center that oversees students with illnesses and disabilities and their right to have equal opportunities. This office is responsible for providing testing accommodations for a variety of students with different ailments. Whether you need extended time during test taking or a scribe or reader for a test, the disability resource center is a great tool to utilize. Some of these same accommodations are also available through the National Board of Medical Examiners for the USMLE tests.

One aspect of having a chronic illness is that it is difficult to find the resources to provide you with the proper care. It is ironic that medical students with chronic illnesses spend so many hours learning in the hospital and often find themselves struggling to access the healthcare system within which they are educated. Student health insurance is generally good for providing emergency care but not the best when it comes to providing care for chronic illnesses. Many times the prescription drugs required are far more expensive than the insurance program is willing to cover. To avoid this burden, many pharmaceutical companies offer prescription drug assistance programs for which most students can be approved. Assistance programs are also offered by hospitals to patrons whose income is lower than a certain amount. These programs exist to ensure access to care and provide an invaluable resource to patients—be sure to use them if you need them.

Having a chronic illness is challenging but it can also be a blessing in disguise. Empathy cannot be easily taught. Knowing what it feels like to be on the other side of the stethoscope can provide invaluable perspective. The best way to understand what a patient needs and cherishes is by being one yourself. By being in this position, when you get to the wards you will be able to relate to the patients and their families.

For some, personal experience with chronic illness also sparks an interest in their future career. By speaking to their physicians, a mentoring relationship can be built within the field which can lead to a great educational opportunity. Living with a chronic illness does not mean that you have to let go of this opportunity. There may be some bumps in the road and some mornings when it seems like the work is not worth the reward, but hold on. The proof is when you can look into the eyes of your patient and truly say you understand.

Viral Patel
Central Region Representative, Council of Student Members
University of Kentucky College of Medicine, Class of 2010
E-mail: vdpate2@uky.edu

Back to May 2008 Issue of IMpact

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