[I want to thank the author for being the first to volunteer her story in what I hope will be an fruitful series of stories/pieces of advice from current and future health care providers who have IBD]
University of South Carolina School of Medicine
M.D. Candidate, Class of 2017
Second year, second semester of medical school: for most, it’s a time to gear up for national board exams. I spent most of that semester in a hospital bed. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and I had it bad. Within six months of my diagnosis, I had failed a handful of conventional treatments and contracted a case of C. diff that was not responding to antibiotic therapy. I had a proctocolectomy and now live with a jpouch. I spent about six months of the last year with an ileostomy. I had to take a year off off school to attend to my illness but I’ll be starting my third year of medical school in July.
My journey is unique in that my diagnosis came after I had already decided to pursue a career in medicine. I never had my heart set on a medical specialty before being diagnosed, and the complications of being immunosuppressed left me feeling as though I had fewer options in terms of branches of medicine I could pursue. It was not until I volunteered at Camp Oasis, a summer camp for children and counselors with IBD run by the CCFA, that I came to realize my disease could also be my calling. I fell in love with the strength, tenacity, and optimism of the boys and girls at camp. As a pediatric gastroenterologist, my ulcerative colitis could be a blessing and tool with which I could better understand my kid-patients and explain their situations to their parents. My disease became my inspiration and strength.
I cannot speak extensively about what it’s like to be a medical professional (in training) with a chronic illness, as I’ve been ill for such a short period of time. However, I feel I can speak to what it is like to be a patient with a medical background. I feel as though doctors and nurses sometimes treat me differently upon learning what I do. Sometimes I tell them outright or other times they guess. (I suppose “my anti-muscarinic drug” isn’t a phase used by a typical patient.) Some physicians will not bother to use conversational language when talking about my condition or symptoms, and instead stick to the exclusive language taught in medical texts and journals, much to the annoyance of my mother. Other times I feel pressure to already have answers to my own question or have diagnosed my symptoms, for I’m going to be a doctor after all. Almost always I feel as though doctors tend to take me more seriously and I have fewer communication gaps between relating my symptoms and receiving treatment. (One might also keep in mind that the only experiences I’ve had are my own; I can’t be sure if my designation as a “medical student” is really the explanation or if it is the seriousness of my condition or that I’m just a clear communicator.)
My time spent as a patient will change the way I relate to my patients in the future. I envision my office will have a framed picture of me, full moon face, to show my pediatric patients when they ask about the steroids. I will be sure all my patients can spend a week at Camp Oasis, regardless of their ability to pay. I will design a better on-call answering service that patients don’t feel guilty for calling, because our symptoms are scary and it is so easy to get used to a symptom that is simply NOT okay. (“How much blood in the toilet is too much blood?” for one.) I want to be able to comfort parents that, even though there isn’t currently a “cure” for their child’s disease, there are treatment options that can give your child back the prep in their step and light in their eyes. And I will work with families and patients to get treatments just right, because the physician is not the most important member of the medical team — the patient is.
To any other medical students (or hopefuls) struggling with a chronic illness, I might suggest this: be honest and open about your situation. I know sharing my story has made it much easier for me to cope, has opened the door for me to hear about others struggles and taught me about the private battles that everyone fights. You are not alone in your journey, although your situation my be unique; know when you need to push yourself, and know when you need to take as break; and ask for help, or else nobody will know you need it. Good luck!
Follow my story at www.shellystory.tumblr.com or on Twitter @UlcColitisProbz