Managing college with a chronic disease


AUSTIN (KXAN) — As classes start Wednesday at the University of Texas at Austin campus, 18-year-old Sarah Hidalgo will be among the incoming first-year students.

However, her experience will be a little different since she bears a burden many of her Longhorn peers don’t: she has multiple sclerosis. That means Hidalgo’s immune system is attacking her nervous system. It’s a disease that can come in waves and can lead to physical debilitations if not managed properly. 

According to the National MS Society, the disease interrupts the transfer of information between the body and the brain, leaving many who have the disease with pain or difficulty walking. 

Hidalgo is a graduate of Stony Point High School in Round Rock and has been going to St. David’s Children’s Hospital to get treatment. At UT she plans to study biochemistry and go down a pre-Med track so that she can become a pediatric neurologist. She hopes to go into pediatric medicine after her experience with MS. 

But Hidalgo knows that in order to do so, she’ll need to lean on her medical and personal support network. She’ll need to return to the hospital for medication infusions. 

Hidalgo’s knowledge of her disease in her teens is rare, most people are diagnosed between the ages of 20 and 50. Hidalgo learned she had the disease on her 16th birthday when a flare-up sent her to the hospital. 

“It was the right side of my body, from head to toe was completely numb and tingly,” she recalled. “So that’s like a really scary feeling.” At that time she had never heard of multiple sclerosis.

“Only two to 10 percent of people with MS show signs of MS before they reach 18,” explained Cheryl Kifer, the nurse navigator who has worked with Hidalgo at St. David’s Children’s Hospital.

Another hurdle for college-age students is that when they turn 18, they switch out of pediatric care and legally have more independence from their parents in their health decisions, Kifer explained. She added that it’s helpful for students with chronic health conditions to learn about their medical care early on so that they can make informed decisions once they head off to college. 

Kifer explained there are certain health indicators Hidalgo should watch for as she goes through college. 

“If she notices any changes in her, tingling, numbness in her legs and arms, any kind of difficulty in walking — UT’s a big campus — so any of those signs could be a red warning flag that she might need to slow down,” Kifer said. 

Hidalgo knows how to recognize some of those warning flags already. “I just know my body limits, I know I can’t pull all-nighters, I know I can’t procrastinate because that really stresses me out,” she said. 

Students with MS and other diseases have a right to academic accommodations for their disabilities. The National MS society explains that seeking out medical support and technology can really help students achieve their academic goals. 

There are other resources for specifically for college students with MS such as scholarships and disability assistance. 

UT Austin’s Counseling and Mental Health Center said their group counseling services are increasingly popular, including a support group for students with life-altering medical conditions called “Connecting Around Chronicity.”

Students with a range of chronic illnesses from diabetes, to arthritis, to ulcerative colitis are seen by providers through University Health Services. 

“Many of these students are not from Austin and need medical attention for medical problems that all students face while at UT, such as upper respiratory infections, fatigue, abdominal pain, etc.,” explained Dr. Melinda McMichael, the interim chief medical officer of University Health Services at UT. 

She explained that UHS will work with the students’ medical professionals outside the university to check on things like medications and treatment. 

Students like Hidalgo at UT Austin are also eligible to get academic accommodations through Services for Students with Disabilities. 

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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