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Nursing School with a Chronic Illness

*Original post released on 8/2/2022

Juggling nursing school and the typical demands of life is hard enough for the average student, but for some, there’s the added weight of also battling a chronic illness. I was one of those students and still remain a nurse battling chronic illness. Dealing with the demands and effects of a chronic illness can increase a person’s fatigue, make it more difficult to find motivation, can be socially isolating, and taxing on your mental, emotional, and physical health.

Let me give you a little of my background for perspective really quick. In the fall of 2016, after suffering from chronic migraines for more than a decade, I was diagnosed with a pineal brain tumor and elevated intracranial pressure. For those of you who don’t know, the pineal gland is pretty much smack dab in the center of the brain and not really operable location. On the bright side, if you can call it that, the tumor wasn’t found to be cancerous. I underwent multiple lumbar punctures for both diagnostic and pressure relieving purposes. After the lumbar punctures and medication trials (Diamox) to try and lower my ICP were ineffective, my neurologist and neurosurgeon sought after alternative means to lower my ICP.

Since I was overweight, their theory was that if I lost a significant amount of weight my intracranial pressure would lower along with it. Thus, at the end of 2016, I underwent gastric bypass surgery in which I lost about half of my body weight. The ICP and migraines began to improve and I enrolled in my nursing program in the spring semester of 2017. That first semester was probably the best I had felt physically, but then the effects began to return. I had repeat lumbar punctures to check on the intracranial pressure, however, my results were within normal limits for an adult. This meant that the migraines were likely a result of the tumor itself. I began a course of treatment with a combination of multiple drugs: Emgality (a monthly injection), Fioricet/Nurtec/Reyvow (all abortive migraine meds), and Botox (a series of 30 injections every three months). This combination of meds took about two cycles, or approximately 6 months, to take effect.

During nursing school, I was not only managing the effects of my chronic illness but also the appointments for its upkeep; this meant I was seeing my neurologist at least every three months or as frequently as every month. Additional appointments were made for my primary care physician (PCP), lumbar punctures, MRI scans, trips to the pharmacy for medications, etc. All of these appointments and accommodations during nursing school is a difficult obligation to uphold, and if you don’t maintain them, your health suffers and so does every other aspect of your life essentially.

Prioritization and balance become your best friend during the few semesters you’re in nursing school. It can be difficult to find time for yourself, downtime for recovery and/or rest, and for follow up appointments while juggling the demands your program places on you. Anticipate nursing school forcing you to schedule time for lecture, lab, and clinicals on top of the ins and outs of daily life. To help with balancing these, try to know your schedule ahead of time and anticipate your needs health-wise. For example, if you know your illness flares up first thing in the morning, try to schedule your classes in the afternoon if that’s a possibility. If your classes are block scheduled in the morning, arrange for your medical appointments to be in the afternoons. Often, doctor’s offices require appointments to be made weeks in advance. So if you’re able to anticipate your schedule with some accuracy, this can save you the hassle of delayed or missed appointments due to conflicts and rescheduling.

Try to talk to your professors in advance, as close to the start of the semester as possible. Let them know what your particular needs are and if there are any potential barriers to your success in their class. Chances are, they will likely be able to assist you in making accommodations as necessary. Another HUGE point to mention here is that you need to make them aware of any signs and symptoms they need to look out for in case of an emergency. For instance, in my case, the high intracranial pressure could have resulted in seizure activity. I let my instructors know this just in case I were to seize during lecture, lab, or clinical. People experience medical emergencies for all sorts of reasons; however, if professors are aware of your medical condition, it can help you get the appropriate treatment more quickly and prevent worsened complications.

On a similar note, consider wearing or keeping some sort of emergency marker (Ex: bracelet, wallet card) on your person to denote your medical condition, allergies, any current medications being taken, etc. In cases of emergency, this information can be potentially life saving. Know your limits while in class or clinical and don’t exceed them if at all possible. This means planning in advance for your needs…staying hydrated, having your medications available just in case class runs late or you need to stay at school to study, sunglasses for photosensitivity, snacks to prevent hypoglycemia, etc. You’ll know the specifics that pertain to your situation and condition. Just be sure to fill in your professors and the administrators of your nursing program to facilitate a professional relationship conducive to both your learning and your health.

I hope this article helped you see that nursing school with a chronic illness is possible. Don’t go at it alone, and make sure you’re in constant communication with students closest to you, professors, and administrators about your condition. They can be an incredible source of support and assistance, but they cannot help you if you don’t make the effort to reach out first. Living with a chronic illness definitely makes nursing school more interesting and difficult, however it is not impossible. If I can manage to excel in nursing school while living with the effects of a brain tumor, you can survive school with your chronic illness too!

Until next time, happy studying!


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