Chronic illness

Navigating varsity life with chronic illness

What is a student to do when their health interferes with their ability to study? How do students navigate daily university life when they are chronically ill? This article looks at how one student living with chronic illness tries to cope.

Jessica Dean* is a third year student at Rhodes University who has been diagnosed with a condition that her doctors have referred to as being “undetermined,” because her symptoms are not specific to one illness.

Her chronic condition includes epilepsy type symptoms such as experiencing seizures which often result in short term memory loss. In addition to this her neurologist has discovered a mass on her brain.

The first symptom appeared when Dean was in her second year in 2010, and various tests such as CAT scans, MRI’s and heart tilt tests were conducted. These failed to conclusively diagnose her illness and Dean was left in a fragile state.

Cases such as these are dealt with by the Dean of Students and are considered as ‘extended leave.’ This is her fifth year of studying and Dean recalls having to battle with the university in getting them to understand her case and complete her courses.

Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to monitor her condition because her neurologist and doctor who are familiar with her medical history are situated in her hometown of, Cape Town. Dean is therefore often referred to Greenacres Hospital in Port Elizabeth to be administered when she needs immediate medical attention, making it logistically difficult to monitor her progress and deterioration.

“The hardest thing is that I have short term memory loss in the period after a blackout, sometimes I need to re work certain things,” said Dean.

She now tries to maintain a balanced diet, exercises regularly and tries not to over work herself. She also relies on the support of her friends and family to cope as she takes each day as it comes.


* Name changed to protect her right to privacy


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