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Getting Through College with a Chronic Illness

Growing up as a kid, I think it is safe to say my family would have described me as full of life, sassy, outgoing, sweet, and a ball of energy. It’s amazing as you grow up and undergo serious life situations, how the words used to describe you may change.

I was diagnosed with POTS in August of 2021. I underwent a solid three months of medical hell (which is a lot less than normal POTS patients undergo, and I am extremely grateful). POTS is a form of dysautonomia, a disorder of the autonomic nervous system. Specifically, this means that any automatic response in my body (heart rate, blood pressure, temperature regulation, breathing, etc) is all disordered and thrown off. The textbook definition for POTS is an increase of 30-40 BPM when there is a postural change in body position, or when an individual changes from sitting to a standing position. Upon standing, blood pools to the feet, causing less blood flow to the rest of the body, which can cause these unpleasant symptoms. It is an extremely unpredictable invisible illness meaning every day looks different. I was infected with COVID-19 in December of 2020, and this infection is what is believed to have caused my development of POTS.

I am a junior in college at Temple University, and I am going through what I feel is the hardest time in my life when these years are supposed to be “the best years of your life.” While I’ve had time to adjust to my routine being back in person for classes, I continue to physically exert more energy than my peers to complete daily tasks as simple as walking to class or even just getting ready for the day. It is incredibly exhausting, both mentally and emotionally, to be reminded that my diagnosis of POTS and its management makes me more different than my peers. Living with an invisible illness at the age of 20 is not something I would ever imagine for myself. POTS is very unheard of by many people, and with that, comes a lot of people not understanding my day-to-day needs and overall not caring to learn about the condition. I’ve said goodbye to many loser friends and really focused on building back my relationship with myself that was broken during my medical trauma. I’m surrounded by people who view me as being “fine” so how could I be going through anything serious? Well let me tell you — it’s far more than serious!

I’ve lost the ability to control my body, meaning I cannot stop symptoms from coming on at any time. I have no predictability over what my day will look like and what I will get to accomplish. I know a majority of people my age would not be able to give up “college life,” and in no way was I ready to either, but I did. I gave up the longing for people to ask me about how they can help me in college, and to feel recognized for still being a normal person with needs. For still being “the old” Natalie. I gave up the hope that people will recognize that I am a warrior, and each day is a battle that only I will understand. Lastly, I gave up trying to still feel like I belong, or fit in, as a student who is chronically ill in the middle of her college experience.

While I stopped putting so much of my attention wishing other people would do things for me or feel a type of way, I learned that the most important person I need through my illness is myself. Natalie. I need her back, and I wanted her back. And I am grateful to say that I almost have her back. I don’t think I will ever feel like the same person again, because I just simply cannot get there. I’ve changed, but that’s good. I’ve learned, grown, and failed through all of this trying to find what feels right. I’ve learned to put myself first in all situations because my health is what always will come first now. I’ve learned to not let outside opinions stop me from getting better. I’ve learned that you will lose people in your life that were never really in it. I’ve learned to grow back my relationship with my body, and myself, and I will improve on this each and every day.

Going through what I am going through may sound heavy, scary, difficult, and worrisome. While it is all of these things, my journey also feels empowering, compelling, and strong. Never in a million years would I think COVID-19 would have changed my life in the way it did. I also would have never believed if you told me six months ago that I would get myself through this. Seeing how unbelievably terrified I was for this semester to start, to be responsible for walking to class each day, on top of being a full-time student (heck, a chronic illness is a full-time job itself!) shows me how far I have come, and how far I still need to go. The famous saying “you’re so young, you have time to figure it out!” was not applicable to me, but I did indeed figure it out while I was young. I figured out that POTS is extremely debilitating, but I will never allow it to win.

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