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Disability and Chronic Illness in Medical School

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

When I was 10 years old, I began to suffer from severe abdominal pain, failure to thrive, among other symptoms. 2 years later I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease, and have lived with the condition for the past 15 years. The words disability and chronic illness can carry a stigma, I am hoping that by speaking about my experiences I can highlight the hidden realities of our kind of students and show that you are not alone in this. I hope that the things I’ve learned over the years will help make your journey that little bit easier. Medical school is difficult even for the most gifted of students, so it goes without saying that any other difficulties one faces makes things that little more stressful. I myself did an undergraduate and a masters before enrolling on a graduate entry course to make things even harder for myself! Everyone has their own journey, but the following tips can apply to anyone.

Create a divide between working and not working.

This is key advice for all students, but this is of paramount importance to those with disability or illness. You’re a medical student but you are not only a medical student, you have hobbies and needs (yes that includes eating and sleeping!). It is essential for mental health to keep doing things that make you happy and separate it from you medic identity. Most importantly your health comes first, do not concede that to get a few more hours of studying. Designate study time and time you turn the medical school brain completely off.

This separation is essential to avoid unnecessary stress and possible burn-out. I feel that spending time to focus on my own health and other things I need and want to do helps maintain a healthy work-life balance. I find that if I do not set aside times to not be in medical school mode it quickly consumes my life. I would find myself becoming increasingly more stressed, and felt I was spiralling deeper into studying and missed out on other major parts of my life. Importantly, illness and disability can drain your energy; consequentially you have lower energy reserves than your peers. Having the separation can help ameliorate this lack of energy. Even if you allow just a short amount of time from a tough day, or during exam preparation, you allow your mind and body to recover so you can perform at your best.

Don’t compare yourself to others and what they are doing.

Another tip that could apply to medical students but is even more important for the chronically ill/disabled students. For us lectures were recorded, which was a benefit for me who sometimes would not feel up to going to lectures and allowed for more self-paced studying. As long as I caught up for exams then things turned out okay. I would of course hear people stressed because they were a few lectures behind, whilst I was sat there being a whole week behind! It is hard not to feel like you should be going faster or doing more, even when you’re working at a pace that fits your own situation.

Everyone studies their own way and at different paces. Whether you’re an adherent to lectures and rewatching them or learn from textbooks better. Especially for students with illness or disability your pace may be different, even organised around flare-ups or appointments. I have often found myself ahead at certain points and drastically behind at others. Just focus on yourself and your learning, and do not worry if your path is different to your peers. As long as you’re prepared for those exams or the clinic, you are smashing it!

Establish a support network early

No man is an island, and no one gets through medical school alone. As a person with illness or disability it is of extreme importance to make sure you know where to go for support in advance of any issues. Social support is a big thing in medical school. Whilst I was worried about my condition getting in the way, other students have caring responsibilities among other things. We all have our own hurdles. Having a network of friends, that you can speak openly with to support each other with the challenges you face is a God send in medical school. It allows you to check in on each other and pull each other through the hard times.

There is also the administrative support you can pursue. Whether you’re applying to medical school or a current student there are things you can do to ease overcome challenges you may face. Make sure you apply for disabled student allowance from Student Finance England. They can provide funding for various things like extra equipment, printing, and even taxis to and from university/placement! My university actually contacted me before starting about my extra needs. If they do not contact you, then you should make sure to do this early. There is usually a designated person in the medical school to help those requiring more support and they should be contacted as soon as possible. You do not need to disclose everything about your condition if you are not comfortable in doing so, but these conversations can help you to avoid difficulties further down the road and could maximise your success in medical school. Being proactive is essential.

Know that your condition gives you unique strengths

I have often had thoughts like, how will I make it through the long hours as a foundation doctor? How will I cope with studying for professional exams while working as a doctor? At first questions like this can rattle you and make you doubt your conviction. One thing that made me calmer was realising that none of us medical students know for certain we can make it. How could we? We haven’t worked as doctors yet. We have to just trust that hard work, solid academics, and proper support will allow us to make it. Sometimes this doubt becomes external and we find that disabled and disadvantaged students find themselves having to justify their abilities to others. This might not be overtly intended but to be undermined in this way can make it harder to maintain confidence in your abilities. Try not to let these doubts fluster you, you got into medical school for a reason and you can see it through to the end.

When we think of illness and disability it is easy to home in on the negatives. I often think will I be too tired to do various things or what if I have a flare up during exams and placement? We often think about the limitations we must overcome or extra barriers we have to navigate. Yet as someone who has gone through the medical system, we are much more aware of our patients’ experience than our peers. As a patient I have been on that bed multiple times. I’ve been lost to follow-up, left confused by the medical system, wondering what is going to happen to me. My illness ingrained in me a powerful sense of empathy and a passion to advocate for my patients in the future. Does my illness come with challenges? Of course, it does. But I can say with certainty it is also my greatest asset.

Know you are not a burden to medicine. You are a necessary and essential part of it. You provide a unique understanding of patients and can provide unparalleled empathy. You may have a disadvantage, but you are not any less capable of becoming a fantastic clinician than any of your peers.

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