Chronic health conditions create challenges for students


Photo by Meghan Fuller.

People who have chronic health conditions may face many challenges. This is even more true for those who are also students. On top of the normal problems that any college student has, they also have to deal with missing classes, constant fatigue and the other complications that a chronic health issue can pose.

Six in 10 Americans have at least one chronic illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and four in 10 have more than one chronic illness. The CDC defines any illness that lasts more than a year and requires ongoing medical attention as a chronic illness. Among these illnesses are narcolepsy, lupus, cancer, diabetes, heart disease and any mental illness.  

Photo by Meghan Fuller.

Sophomore biology and public health double major Deborah Edwards is a student with chronic illness. She has several health issues, including narcolepsy, a heart condition and a weakened immune system. 

Because of her narcolepsy, Edwards said she gets tired more often than most people and experiences sleep attacks, which cause the uncontrollable need to sleep.

“The other day, I was in my psychology class, and I meant to close my eyes for three seconds because the lights were hurting them, but then I completely went to sleep for a solid 45 minutes,” Edwards said. “I’ve also missed classes after I’ve slept through alarms because I’ve turned them off, and I don’t realize or wake up until four hours later.”

Edwards said her heart condition also creates challenges, especially when it comes to getting around campus. Before getting medication, she said taking a few steps would make her lightheaded and dizzy.

“It’s better now that I’m on medication, but parking is a big issue,” Edwards said. “Such limited parking causing me to have to walk far is very physically hard on me.” 

Along with being a full-time student, Edwards also works two part-time jobs, which is physically and mentally draining.

“I feel like it makes me have to schedule my day more than most people, because I have to get at least one or two naps a day, and being a double major makes it even more difficult to schedule my classes the way I’d like,” Edwards said.

Senior history major Leah Burton is another student who deals with chronic health problems. She was diagnosed with lupus when she was 19 and also has complex migraines.

Burton was homeschooled throughout high school. She said her health conditions have affected her much more during her time in college.

“Lupus is definitely a stress-triggered auto-immune illness,” Burton said. “So it definitely makes it harder when you’re running back and forth between classes or worrying about when your next assignment is due because then it flares up, and you can’t finish writing your paper that’s due in two hours.”

Burton said having lupus often causes physical pain, which can prevent her from doing everyday activities. If Burton’s lupus flares, which can last days to weeks, she is sometimes unable to leave the house and can miss a lot of classes.

“My comprehensive abilities can also become slower to where I can’t think as fast on the spot, so if I’m in class and a professor called on me, I wouldn’t be able to answer their question as quickly as someone else, because I can’t really form an answer in a timely manner.”

Recently, Burton has also been experiencing seizures. Because of this, Burton has not been attending class and isn’t sure when or if she’ll be able to return. She said she is hopeful that she will still be able to graduate in December by finishing her classes online. 

“I’ve survived so much already. Lupus is not easy. The migraines are not easy, but I’ve survived them, and I’ll survive this too,” Burton said. “Even if my dreams don’t happen the way I wanted them to, I’ll just have to alter my plans and find a path that will work.”  

Aside from the physical and psychological toll of dealing with health issues, there is also the financial burden they can pose.

Edwards had insurance that covered the cost of most of her prescriptions and doctor visits, but after she lost it earlier this year, the financial aspects of her health issues have become an obstacle.

“I haven’t been to the doctor like I’ve needed to this year because of my lack of insurance,” Edwards said. “There are some serious things I probably should be going to the doctor about, and I haven’t been able to because I would have to pay so much out of pocket.”

Health educator and promotions coordinator for Moffitt Health Center Kayla Johnson said their providers often work with students with chronic health issues as long as the issues fall within their scope of practice. She said the health center also offers financial assistance to students for medications. Students can charge any medication fees to their student account and pay when they have the money rather than at the time of the visit.

“[Charging fees to their student accounts] affords the student a little more time to pay for the medication. Should a student be experiencing financial hardship, we can set up case management for that student on a case by case basis,” Johnson said. “We do not want a student to go without a medication that is essential to their health and wellbeing.”