Chronic on Campus: My Reflections on Student Health, Illness, and Disability
What makes up the world, for me, is language. While the natural sciences contend that the world is made of matter—atoms, molecules, cells, genes, tissue, organs—I believe that language accounts for what happens between people. We don’t just pass down genes. We inherit the words we speak. We don’t just care for our own bodies. We care for our own stories.
I arrived at Boston College certain that I would study English and love it, but after a year of introductory English classes, I felt entirely uninspired. What was the matter? When it came to the stories, what mattered?
During sophomore year, something happened in my own story. I stumbled across a news article about a new interdisciplinary Medical Humanities minor. Medical humanities is a field devoted to the humanistic and cultural study of medicine, caregiving, illness, disability, and representations of the body; it values the interconnectedness and complexity of these issues, looking at them from different perspectives in order to better understand them. These topics have always been present in my life: my sister works in a lab, my twin is studying medical imaging, my mother is an EMG technician, my parents cared for aging and ill relatives and friends.
Could medical humanities synthesize my love for literature and my interest in caregiving and healthcare?
Sophomore fall, I attended a symposium at Boston College on Genetics, Narrative, and Identity. Contributors to The Story Within, a collection of essays on genetic diseases and the complex life-stories and decisions surrounding them, captivated me with their candor, strength, and insight. The day culminated in a writing workshop and keynote address given by Rita Charon, M.D., Ph.D., who founded the field of narrative medicine. She made clear to me what it means to be present for another person, in sickness or in health.
I decided to enroll in an introductory medical humanities course. In the texts we studied and the conversations in which we engaged, the complexity and high stakes of the issues—genetic testing, public health, representing disability and disease—marveled me.
The most compelling text to me was Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain. She writes: “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language.” 1 Pain is that which cannot be put into words, cannot be represented; so specific, so individual, it falls outside of any system of communication. At the same time, pain is perhaps the most difficult thing for a listener to believe. If pain really did destroy language, dissolve the relationship between two people, what did this mean for me and my world of words?
But, more importantly, pain calls us to bridge the gap between individuals. Pain calls us to create something, to listen with empathy, to trust, to acknowledge the other, to bear witness. In sickness and in health, in pain and in pleasure, our words and our stories are what humanize us and connect us.
A friend of mine recently shared with me that she has been dealing with diabetes since she was two years old. She is one of the most driven, most involved students I know. I felt so fortunate and honored to hear her story and her insight. Her story and the conversations that followed strengthened our friendship.
In college, the stories of chronic illness or disability are so often untold and unheard. Built environments and institutional policies, sometimes established without consideration for those who have chronic illnesses or disabilities, can intensify these potentially isolating experiences. Laurie Edwards, a writing instructor at Northeastern University and a person with chronic illnesses herself, writes on the state of colleges for students with chronic illnesses or disabilities, shedding light onto the ways in which colleges fail these students.2 Students, faculty, and administrators should acknowledge these students and their individual needs. Making accommodations for these students and respecting their stories for these students will ensure that higher education remains accessible to all people—sick or well, disabled or able-bodied.
On a college campus, it is easy to assume that everyone is healthy, with crowds at the gyms and a vibrant and energetic student population. At the same time, illness is easily normalized. What college student hasn’t been exhausted? Who hasn’t caught a cold in a residence hall? We must heed narrative medicine’s call to honor the stories of health and illness in each individual, to acknowledge its specificity, and to listen with care and empathy. With this kind of attitude, we can perhaps see that the campus of the healthy and the campus of the ill are not different places: they’re the same.
Over the coming months, I will facilitate the sharing of stories about college students living with chronic illnesses or disability. Stay tuned for future features from me on these issues.
Christopher Kabacinski is a rising senior at Boston College, where he is studying English and Medical Humanities. He is a founder and the editor-in-chief of The Medical Humanities Journal of Boston College, a student-run journal featuring undergraduate work on issues such as medicine, health, illness, disability, bioethics, and representations of the body. Currently, Chris is working as intern at Health Story Collaborative. He is developing a project about college students with chronic illness or disability. If you or someone you know might be interested in sharing his or her story of health, illness, or disability, please contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. Oxford University Press: New York, NY, 1985. Print. 4.
2. Edwards, Laurie. “When It Comes To Chronic Illness, College Campuses Have A Lot To Learn.” WBUR, Cognoscenti: Boston, MA. 5 March 2014. Web. Accessed 16 June 2015.