Coping with Disaster at College

During high school I worked really hard—physically and academically—towards the goal of going to college. My parents encouraged me every step of the way, fully expecting that although I grappled with severe rheumatoid arthritis I would attend college.

Largely because of this goal, I had both my knees and hips replaced as a teenager. Not only were my joints severely damaged by the disease and caused me great pain, but my mobility and energy was limited by them. The idea was to have the surgeries and be fully recovered in time for college, which I was.

My choice was a small women’s college because of the academics and the supportiveness of the community. I brought a motorized wheelchair so facility accessibility was important. Most of the college’s buildings were accessible and they helped by making some alterations during the summer so that I could get around easier, like some of the paths and ramps.

While preparing to leave for college I was at once excited and extremely anxious. I had never lived away from home and was worried about how I would adapt. My family helped me get ready and pack up. We thought about contingencies and ideas for how I would physically manage my independence for the first time.

We had it all worked out—then disaster struck.

My family moved me in and said their goodbyes. I started getting to know the other freshmen on my hall during orientation week. My anxiety slipped away and I just began enjoying myself—looking forward to classes starting and making friends.

Then, I broke my leg.

While riding in my wheelchair through the dining hall, my left foot caught under my chair and I completed an impressive somersault onto the floor. Impressive, except for the landing and resulting break in my femur.

My classmates quickly gather around me, helped me back to my chair and then accompanied me to the student health center, which sent me to the Emergency Room. I spent the night in the hospital and was shown how to put my leg in an immobilizing brace. My parents returned to help me figure out a plan for how I would manage college with a broken leg during a couple months of healing.

I was fortunate to have an excellent support system because my heart was breaking. I couldn’t see how I would be able to stay in college with my mobility stripped away, how I would recover from this injury. It was extremely lucky that the break occurred above my knee replacement implant, however, it would take awhile for the healing followed by physical therapy to regain my strength.

The difference was having my family and our ability to problem solve. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. My mother spent hours on the phone arranging aides who would come to help me get ready and into my wheelchair every morning and evening. Additionally, my family found physical therapists to visit and help me exercise to maintain my strength. We looked at my daily activities and figured out ways I could manage by myself or where I would need help.

The plan worked! I was able to stay in school and completed the semester successfully. One of the wonderful surprises was the support I received from my new friends and classmates. Looking back, it was due greatly to the encouragement from my dorm mates that I stayed in college.

While that first semester wasn’t easy I learned that if I could manage college with rheumatoid arthritis and a broken leg, then I could cope with just about any disaster in life. Gathering support from loved ones and the community helped provide all the resources I needed. Additionally, being creative about problem solving helped to create a path through scary, uncharted territory.

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