How I Survived Nursing School (With a Chronic Illness)

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So here I am, almost an entire month past pinning and graduation, and with one small detail between me and RN licensure: the NCLEX-RN exam. With the date fast approaching, I look back and wonder how I managed to come through it with my sanity more or less intact.

One recent lecture that one of my LLMD’s gave talked about how medical school breaks you down to put you back together to think in a different way, and I believe there is a similar process going on with nursing school. Before I began down this road in the late summer of 2014, I had already earned a Bachelor degree in biology and graduated with honors. I breezed through those 4 years relatively easily, still graduating on time despite taking a semester off to participate in a research project at one of the National Laboratories. I frequently tell people Nursing school was the first time I was challenged academically.

Add to that the fact that 20 years later, I suffer with the remnants of Lyme Disease and other co-infections that went untreated for several years, and well, it certainly didn’t make nursing school any easier. So with all of that in mind, the following are my tips for surviving nursing school with a chronic illness:

Be flexible and adaptable. Because nursing school will teach you to “think critically,” you have to be prepared that regurgitating information isn’t going to be enough. Try to fight the process as little as possible. Fighting it causes stress, and when you battle with a chronic disease, stress is the enemy.

Be prepared. You have to be prepared for many things, not just homework and class and clinical times, but with things more specific to your challenges. For example, pack a lunch and a snack the night before class and clinical this way you can make good choices for your body. For me, that meant eliminating foods I was sensitive to, like gluten and soy, and foods that were inflammatory, like sugar, grains, legumes, etc. For me, that also meant bringing a seat cushion to class because my joints and lower back would ache horribly sitting in those hard chairs. I recall when I was taking my first semester’s fundamentals final, and I was having such a horrible pain flare, that I asked the instructor if there was somewhere more comfortable to sit. She was kind enough to bring me such a chair, and after she left me alone in the lab, I broke down in tears – from the humiliation, the frustration, and the pain. Which brings me to my next point:

Inform your instructors. I had to let them know what I was battling against, because I knew that sometimes my illness has an unpredictable nature to it at times, and I didn’t want to be boxed into a corner not being able to illicit their help in a pinch, because I was too proud to share. Your professors want to see you succeed (as a general rule), and can be a wonderful resource. Mine let me know to contact my disability office at my college, which in turn told me to get a doctor’s note detailing any special accommodations I may need, this way there was a “safety net” in place in case things went unpredictably south. Start this process sooner rather than later, as it may take time to organize all the paperwork so that it’s in place before you have to use it.

Know yourself. You have to know your body and how it responds to stress and increasing demands, and you have to organize yourself and be able to prioritize in order to make the most of your “good time.” A lot of folks who suffer with chronic illness are familiar with the “spoon theory,” so let me explain this way: you’ll need to develop a good sense of how many spoons you are going to start each day with, and how many spoons each activity on your to do list requires. This is not to say that you won’t get caught off guard at times, so refer back to tip #1.

This also includes knowing when you’ve had enough, and when it’s time to decompress. Make yourself a list of things you like to do that help nurture your own mental and emotional well-being, and be sure that your list includes things you can do despite your pain levels, fatigue levels, etc. Coloring and journaling were my go-to activities when I needed down time but felt limited by my pain.

Sleep. Good sleep is essential. You need to allow your body enough time to recoup from the demands of class and clinical. No all-nighter study sessions, no research papers pulled out of your butt at the eleventh hour. Practice good sleep hygiene, and if possible, address any concerns with your health care provider.

The bottom line is, nursing school is stressful, chronically ill or not. Be kind to yourself, know yourself, and don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it.

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