This is a guest post by Elita Baldridge (@elitabaldridge). She is a graduate student in our group who has been navigating the development of a chronic illness during graduate school. She is sharing her story to help spread awareness of the challenges faced by graduate students with chronic illnesses. She wrote an excellent post on the PhDisabled blog about the initial development of her illness that I encourage you to read first.
During my time as a Ph.D. student, I developed a host of bizarre, productivity eating symptoms, and have been trying to make progress on my dissertation while also spending a lot of time at doctors’ offices trying to figure out what is wrong with me. I wrote an earlier blog post about dealing with the development of a chronic illness as a graduate student at the PhDisabled Blog.
When the rheumatologist handed me a yellow pamphlet labeled “Fibromyalgia”, I felt a great sense of relief. My mystery illness had a diagnosis, so I had a better idea of what to expect. While chronic, at least fibromyalgia isn’t doing any permanent damage to joints or brain. However, there isn’t a lot known about it, the treatment options are limited, and the primary literature is full of appallingly small sample sizes.
There are many symptoms which basically consisting of feeling like you have the flu all the time, with all the associated aches and pains. The worst one for me, because it interferes with my highly prized ability to think, is the cognitive dysfunction, or, in common parlance, “fibro fog”. This is a problem when you are actively trying to get research done, as sometimes you remember what you need to do, but can’t quite figure out how navigating to your files in your computer works, what to do with the mouse, or how to get the computer on. I frequently finish sentences with a wave of my hand and the word “thingy”. Sometimes I cannot do simple math, as I do not know what the numbers mean, or what to do next. Depending on the severity, the cognitive dysfunction can render me unable to work on my dissertation as I simply cannot understand what I am supposed to do. I’m not able to drive anymore, due to the general fogginess, but I never liked driving that much anyway. Sometimes I need a cane, because my balance is off or I cannot walk in a straight line, and I need the extra help. Sometimes I can’t be in a vertical position, because verticality renders me so dizzy that I vomit.
I am actually doing really well for a fibromyalgia patient. I know this, because the rheumatologist who diagnosed me told me that I was doing remarkably well. I am both smug that I am doing better than average, because I’m competitive that way, and also slightly disappointed that this level of functioning is the new good. I would have been more disappointed, only I had a decent amount of time to get used to the idea that whatever was going on was chronic and “good” was going to need to be redefined. My primary care doctor had already found a medication that relieved the aches and pains before I got an official diagnosis. Thus, before receiving an official diagnosis, I was already doing pretty much everything that can be done medication wise, and I had already figured out coping mechanisms for the rest of it. I keep to a strict sleep schedule, which I’ve always done anyway, and I’ve continued exercising, which is really important in reducing the impact of fibromyalgia. I should be able to work up my exercise slowly so that I can start riding my bicycle short distances again, but the long 50+ mile rides I used to do are probably out.
Fortunately, my research interests have always been well suited to a macroecological approach, which leaves me well able to do science when my brain is functioning well enough. I can test my questions without having to collect data from the field or lab, and it’s easy to do all the work I need to from home. My work station is set up right by the couch, so I can lay down and rest when I need to. I have to be careful to take frequent breaks, lest working too long in one position cause a flare up. This is much easier than going up to campus, which involves putting on my healthy person mask to avoid sympathy, pity, and questions, and either a long bus ride or getting a ride from my husband. And sometimes, real people clothes and shoes hurt, which means I’m more comfortable and spending less energy if I can just wear pajamas and socks, instead of jeans and shoes.
Understand that I am not sharing all of this because I want sympathy or pity. I am sharing my experience as a Ph.D. student developing and being diagnosed with a chronic illness because I, unlike many students with any number of other short term or long term disabling conditions, have a lot of support. Because I have a great deal of family support, departmental support, and support from the other Weecologists and our fearless leaders, I should be able to limp through the rest of my Ph.D. If I did not have this support, it is very likely that I would not be able to continue with my dissertation. If I did not have support from ALL of these sources, it is also very likely that I would not be able to continue. While I hope that I will be able contribute to science with my dissertation, I also think that I can contribute to science by facilitating discussion about some of the problems that chronically ill students face, and hopefully finding solutions to some of those problems. To that end, I have started an open GitHub repository to provide a database of resources that can help students continue their training and would welcome additional contributions. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lot. Many medical Leave of Absence programs prevent students from accessing university resources- which also frequently includes access to subsidized health insurance and potentially the student’s doctor, as well as removing the student from deferred student loans.
I have fibromyalgia. I also have contributions to make to science. While I am, of course, biased, I think that some contribution is better than no contribution. I’d rather be defined by my contributions, rather than my limitations, and I’m glad that my university and my lab aren’t defining me by my limitations, but are rather helping me to make contributions to science to the best of my ability.