Living with chronic illnesses and disability at Dartmouth

by Lucy M. Li | 3/3/16 7:15pm

I love you, Dartmouth, but I blame you for my current illness. As I have been sick for pretty much all but the first week of winter term.

As a Southern Californian with a weak immune system due to a history of being affected by some rather harsh illnesses, my health has not fared so well during the last nine weeks of a very temperamental New England winter. Paired with freezing temperatures and the emotional toll of winter term, my body has been unhappy with the fact that my life can’t help but spiral into bouts of emotional and physical stress. My body expresses this unhappiness with constant illness.

It’s hard to be at anything less than your optimal physical health at Dartmouth. The academics are no joke, and trying to balance good grades with a fulfilling social life, involvement in extracurriculars and athletics and a decent sleep schedule while also maintaining a healthy diet and regular exercise regime is like trying to play God. While on the surface it seems like a majority of Dartmouth students live lives that resemble something like that, it’s almost guaranteed that very few, if any, can accomplish that balance all of the time.

However, I’ve found that Dartmouth students have a knack for being adaptable and capable of overcoming challenges and stressors, including physical stressors like long-term illnesses and disabilities. No Dartmouth experience is the same, but some students have had radically different experiences due to the impact of impaired physical health.

So how do long-term illnesses, recurring injuries or lifelong disabilities affect a Dartmouth student’s daily life? What’s it like to navigate Dartmouth when you’re not quite at your optimal physical health?

From talking to several Dartmouth students who opened up about their illnesses, injuries and disabilities, I’ve learned that the impact of physical impairments is not necessarily negative; while they certainly don’t make life easier, they also seem to build character in those who have learned to not only adapt, but flourish.

As most of us know, mononucleosis is a fairly common viral disease that ends up having some very long-term effects. Sam Kocen ’19, who had mono during the second half of last fall, does not remember his illness fondly.

“I took all my finals for fall term with a 101-degree fever, and I was barely able to leave McLaughlin to get food and other things,” Kocen said. “It basically made life a lot harder.”

Spencer Jorgensen ’17, who had mono during his sophomore summer, also recounts his illness as a time during which normal day-to-day activities weren’t so easy.

“You’re just so tired during the day, and you’re often going to classes not feeling well at all. There were some days where I wouldn’t even get out of bed,” Jorgensen said. “Mono is something that if it’s not addressed or you’re not resting adequately, it can really affect you.”

Prolonged illnesses like mono have the power to characterize entire terms at Dartmouth. The difficulty with dealing with this illness is that not only is recovery so lengthy, but that it’s hard to even find the time to recover without completely falling behind. The world doesn’t stop spinning for anyone.

However, Dartmouth students seem to understand this and realize that the ability to succeed depends on their adaptability. While the world may not stop spinning to accommodate us, we can learn to accommodate to our situation. Jorgensen agrees that the best he could do was learn to adapt.

“I just had to sleep a lot more, choose my battles and be productive during the hours that I could be productive,” he said.

For Kocen, his illness provided him with a valuable lesson to apply to future terms.

“I think now it’s been better for my academics because I know not to push my self too hard in terms of partying,” he said.

Some students, though, have illnesses or other physical impairments that have affected them for many years or even their entire lives. For these students, the physical impairments that they face are a part of their every day lives no matter where they are.

Bryan Bollinger ’19 has a condition that has influenced his life drastically in the last few years; it has forced him to move to Hawaii, changed his diet and allowed him to develop a unique Dartmouth experience.

Since I’m not quite sure how to articulate his illness in my own words, I asked him to explain it himself.

“So I have some immune system dysregulation, and basically the way that manifests is if I eat just about any food, it will trigger me and I will be extremely sick for the next 24 to 48 hours,” he said. “So also because of that, in order to suppress my immune system, I’ve been put on corticosteroids, and I’ve been on them for so long that now my adrenal glands don’t work. So I now have what’s called adrenal insufficiency.”

This illness has influenced many facets of his daily life at Dartmouth, one of the most apparent facets being his eating habits. With rice and eggs as the only two foods that don’t trigger him, Bollinger has developed a very customized eating schedule to accommodate his illness.

“So I don’t go out for breakfast or lunch because I have to make my own food in my dorm with these elemental nutrition formulas,” he said. “For dinner, when I go to Foco, I have them custom-make my food.”

On top of that, his adrenal insufficiency also prevents him from handling a lot of physical stress, meaning that alcohol and late nights are not an option. Basically, the Dartmouth frat scene doesn’t really provide a social scene that is conducive for his health. By far the greatest challenge, Bollinger says, has been finding a social scene that caters to the limitations of his illness.

“[Dartmouth is] obviously a pretty alcohol-centered culture, which overall, it’s not been ideal, but at the same time I’ve still found friends who don’t really rely on that,” he said. “The other thing is staying up late. You know with parties in frat basements opening up around eleven, ideally I’d like to have been asleep for half an hour by then.”

Bollinger understands and has come to terms with the effect of his illness on his life, and he hopes that his peers can respect him for his accomplishments.

“I try not to let it define me and even though it has certainly had a large impact on what I can and can’t do and has been the driving force of many of my decisions in the past few years of my life, I try to have a character outside of that. So hopefully that comes through,” he said.

Staci Mannella ’18, who is legally blind, explained that because she’s been legally blind her entire life, it’s not something that she consciously thinks about all the time, but she says she has definitely had to work extra hard to adapt.

“It’s definitely a struggle to keep up, but I’ve been trained to work it out and figure out ways to allow me to succeed a little bit more at Dartmouth,” she said.

While she believes that she can accomplish her goals, Mannella also admits that her time at Dartmouth has tested her.

“My experiences at Dartmouth have kind of made me realize that the world isn’t really built for someone who can’t see,” she said. “So keeping that in mind, I had to figure it out and it’s important not to get fixated on it because I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself.”

In the end, the impact of physical impairments on a Dartmouth student’s life can be significant. Mannella believes, though, it’s only one of the many factors that influences our Dartmouth experience if one can be flexible and learn to adapt.

“Everyone’s life at Dartmouth is a little different,” she said. “No one’s experience is the same, and yeah, the fact that I can’t see plays a little bit of a part in my experience at Dartmouth, but it’s something that I’ve always had to overcome.”