A couple of weeks ago I read an article on Thought Catalog written by a girl named Dani. She also has Chronic Lyme disease. We connected on Instagram (@dani_fusaro) and I discovered she was just finishing up her doctorate in physical therapy… just as I’m about to start mine this fall. Of course, I had to reach out to her because 1) #LymiesUnite! and 2) She had managed to get through the graduate program I was about to dive into, while being sick!
We’ve ended up becoming friends and she was kind enough to share all her top tips for managing graduate school while dealing with a chronic illness. She then agreed we could make the tips into a post for my blog. Although her tips are from the perspective of a physical therapy student, I think they are quite applicable for most graduate students and even undergrad. I hope to write a follow up post with any additional tips once I get through the program in a few years and you all are calling me Dr. Victoria :).
Tips for Managing Graduate School while Dealing with a Chronic Illness
No matter what, you and your symptoms ALWAYS come first. You have to prioritize your schedule to suit your needs. Everything from meal prep, resting, studying, etc. I did the majority of studying from my bed because making it through class was just about all I had energy for. If you can’t take care of your health, you won’t be able to do anything else.
1) First thing – and worst thing – if you got into PT school, that means you’re a great student and are used to doing well in school. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to adjust your expectations. You most likely will not be a 4.0 or even 3.5 GPA student. It’s too hard to balance symptoms and be able to do that well. It takes time to get used to it, but you have to adjust to the fact that you just won’t do as well as you probably have done in the past. You have to do what you need to do to pass your classes and maintain the minimum GPA to stay in your program.
You have to figure out which information is the most important to know and which information you don’t need to know right now. Essentially, you have to prioritize your studying so that you learn what you need to do well enough on an exam and nothing more than that. Otherwise you’ll get too tired and you won’t remember anything. This takes some time to figure out and, of course, it varies by professor, but it’s a very important skill to have.
2) This may or may not work for some, depending on the program, but figure out early on which classes you can get away with skipping if needed. my PT program had 61 students so it was fairly easy to miss a lecture here and there when I needed to rest instead. Do your best to never miss labs, though. That’s the practical stuff so you shouldn’t miss it. It’s much harder to learn afterwards if you aren’t there for your professors to teach you.
3) Don’t be afraid to contact your professors and inform them of your situation. Explain what you have, how it effects you, and what you’re doing about it or what you would like/need from them. I basically gave them an overview of my biggest symptoms, I told them that sometimes I won’t be able to make it to class or assignments could be late because symptoms can change within the hour. And at the end of it, I said that I was going to do my best to do as well as possible in the class and I would make up any missed material / attend office hours if I had to miss class. This was honestly the best thing I ever did. My professors wouldn’t mark me down for participation when I needed to miss class, and it took away a lot of the stress and guilt for doing so. Professors in PT (and most health programs) are naturally going to be more compassionate, so I think that definitely helps. I’d talk to them during really tough times and they’d help me manage things so I could be as successful as possible. Also, I made sure they never thought I would take advantage of their kindness. They often offered to let me take an exam late, send in an assignment late, etc. but I rarely did that. Getting the offers is also really nice for stress levels when studying.
*Note from Victoria- in undergrad I would let all my professors know about my situation at the beginning of the semester. This way they didn’t think I was slacking if I had to miss class or asked to turn in an assignment late last minute. Also, based on others I’ve talked to in PT and other graduate programs, professors want you to succeed. They know you came to graduate school on your own will to advance your career and life, so they want to work with you.
4) Friends are another key. One of my friends would take notes similarly to how I take them. He understood my illness and would send me the lecture notes any time I missed class. Friends are also great for study guides, ask them for them if they’re willing to help you. Basically, find at least one person in your class who you can trust and is willing to help you out.
5) I also suggest not participating in anything outside of graduate school. I didn’t work, I didn’t volunteer, I didn’t do anything besides go to class and go home. Go out and be social with friends when you can – you will be an insane person if you don’t, but try not to push yourself. On really sick days, ask a friend to help you get out of the house to perk you up or get some studying done. If you can find even just one friend who can help carry you through, it’ll help enormously.
6) It can be hard to keep up with proper diet when school gets stressful because you’re just too tired to cook / any energy you have needs to go towards studying. To get around that, order food when needed and always keep your freezer/fridge/cupboards stocked in case of “emergencies”. There was this special vegan, gluten-free pizza I loved, so I always made sure I had at least two in the freezer. Batch cook so that you can keep leftovers in the freezer. I would also have some gluten-free frozen meals I could eat if necessary. I don’t like doing that but sometimes you just get too sick. There was also this restaurant near me that made amazing food completely on diet – so I’d order two or three things and not have to worry for a few days. Try and find a diet compliant restaurant near you that you can order from when necessary.
7) Detox is also very important, for your health and for sanity, while in graduate school. Take epsom salt baths or saunas. Bring your notes/flash cards into the tub to study while detoxing, if you can. Use things like aka-seltzer gold or binders (activated charcoal, chlorella) for herxes or bad days. Tinctures like burbur and pinella by nutramedix are also great for helping with detox. Detoxing can help keep you stable enough to study or clear some brain fog so that you can study.
Essentially the entire process is sorting out your priorities/schedule to exactly what you need at that time. You have to be selfish and always put yourself first. Taking care of yourself is the only way you’ll be able to manage school without completely destroying your body and be able to come out on the other side.