The Challenges and Successes of Getting Through College with a Chronic Illness
By: Sarah Salas
“Have you started your college applications yet?” asked my high school counselor as I stared back with wide eyes. To be honest, this was something I knew I wanted to pursue, but I didn’t think this time would come so soon. I always knew I wanted to go to college because I have a goal of becoming a speech pathologist. My older brother has autism and needed a speech therapist because he struggled speaking when he was younger. The impact she made for my brother was life-changing, and I knew I wanted to do that for others.
I always knew I wanted to go to college because I have a goal of becoming a speech pathologist. My older brother has autism and needed a speech therapist because he struggled speaking when he was younger. The impact she made for my brother was life-changing, and I knew I wanted to do that for others
As I started applying for multiple colleges in my area, all I could think about was how excited I was to finally move away from home and all the freedom that comes along with it. What I wasn’t thinking about was how this would impact my life with cystic fibrosis (CF). My whole life, I never let my CF define who I was or hold me back from having a normal childhood. I actually kept my chronic illness a secret from all my friends, from elementary through high school. This is an invisible illness, so no one needed to know, right? I quickly realized that CF is something to be shared, not something to be ashamed of! Once I accepted that fact, I began spreading as much awareness as I could to educate people about the strong fighters in the CF community. I never thought I would post online about my illness, speak at a pediatric CF family day, or even write a blog like this!
I received my college acceptances and I ultimately chose a school that wasn’t too far from home but far enough that I could have some independence — a decision that made my parents very happy. August 2015 was approaching, and it all started to get real! My checklist was full; buy cute things for my apartment, get my own cleaning supplies, and of course buy new clothes. I was set on getting multicolored spirals and notebooks so that way I can look like I have my life together. It was time to start packing my things to move away. I remember my medications and treatments taking up almost a whole suitcase, not to mention my 20-pound vest. I moved in, got my classes set up, and was officially ready to start my freshman year. My mom left my apartment and told me the same words I have heard my whole life: “I love you…. don’t forget to do your treatments.”
I realized that this was the first time I was fully responsible for my treatment regimen. I wasn’t going to have my parents bring me my pills, set up my vest, or clean my nebulizer cups. I had to become responsible for my own health. This was a tough realization. As the year went on and the classes became difficult, I started neglecting my treatments and medications to stay on top of my grades and social life. I would choose to stay up late and study or go out with my friends instead of doing what I needed to do to stay healthy. I cultured pseudomonas auruginosa (Pa) multiple times and was coughing more than I ever had in my life. I struggled with managing my CF-related diabetes which also significantly affected my lung function. I wasn’t being the person I needed to be; I wasn’t putting cystic fibrosis first. As I went through my sophomore, junior, and senior year I got more adjusted and improved my CF care. I went through many trial and errors with balancing college and CF. I want to share a couple things that helped me through college with a chronic illness that I hope can benefit at least one person:
1. Study while you do your treatments
This is so beneficial! It saves time and you will be able to pass that math test and pass that pulmonary function test with flying colors!
2. Treatments come first, no matter what
Saying no to hanging out with your friends is sometimes necessary when you have to do your nightly treatments.
3. Have a weekly pill box and set it up every Sunday
I recommend Sunday because you will be setting up for the school week ahead, just add in 5 mins to set up your pill boxes.
4. Apply for CF scholarships
Having CF and choosing to go to college is a financial challenge. There are a variety of CF scholarships out there that truly understand our needs and are there to help those pursuing higher education. I was recently chosen as the scholarship recipient for the CF Roundtable’s Lauren Melissa Kelly Scholarship and I am so beyond grateful that I was awarded this. This scholarship will help me in my first year of graduate school and make it possible to afford both school and medication.
5. Tell your professors about having cystic fibrosis
Let the office of disabilities at your college know about your disease, just in case you have to miss class related to your CF and your professors will understand.
6. Look ahead to your future
If you care for yourself now, you will have a bright future ahead and be able to accomplish anything you put your mind to.
7. Have a good support system
I wouldn’t have been able to get through my college years without the support of my family and friends. I believe having a strong support system to cheer you on in whatever you do makes living life a little easier. Give them a call every once in a while, they want to know if you’re okay.
My CF journey has not been the easiest, and coming to college and deciding to go to graduate school was something I never thought I would be able to do as a child with a life expectancy of the early 20s.I see myself as the person my younger self would have been proud of today.
My CF journey has not been the easiest, and coming to college and deciding to go to graduate school was something I never thought I would be able to do as a child with a life expectancy of the early 20s. I see myself as the person my younger self would have been proud of today. There are still challenges I face and have to adapt to as they come into my life. Like a surprise hospital visit 2 weeks before starting graduate school, but sometimes you just have to take a breath and fight through it. As I begin my first week of graduate school this week, I look at my life with CF and am nothing but hopeful. I am hopeful for future medicines, for more awareness, and hopeful for there to one day be a cure. Please follow your dreams, go to college, apply for that job you want! Never let CF hold you back from living the life you are blessed to live. And don’t forget to do your treatments!
My name is Sarah Kathryn Salas and I am a 22-year-old living with Cystic Fibrosis. I am a fighter of CF since I was six months old. Besides a recent hospitalization 2 weeks ago, I had not been in the hospital for the past 15 years! This past May, I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Communication Sciences and Disorders. I am currently continuing my education at Texas A&M University Kingsville’s Masters Program to achieve my dream job of becoming a speech therapist to children and adults. I look at my disease as a way of being able to show others that no matter what you are faced with, you need to embrace it, conquer it, and walk away stronger. I wouldn’t be where I am today without my family and friends, the amazing doctors, and medication I take to keep me healthy and strong. I am hopeful in the research that has been done for Cystic Fibrosis to extend the lives of all CF patients just like me! Looking forward to the day that a cure will be found!