How I survived college with POTS

During my last year of college I became quite sick, and was diagnosed with POTS (Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome). I was attending Brigham Young University working on my bachelor’s degree in marketing.

Before this, I walked to class everyday -- which usually ended up being over a mile of walking. That’s not something that comes easy for someone who has POTS. I was experiencing severe lightheadedness and tachycardia when standing, and I missed a lot of class because of this. The headaches, brain fog, and fatigue also made school difficult.

I’m excited to share with you what got me through my last few semesters of college with POTS. It definitely wasn’t easy, but the added challenge of being sick made my graduation even more rewarding.

These are my top tips for surviving college with POTS:

1) Let your professors know about your illness in advance

Luckily, I had very understanding professors that never once questioned my illness. I always offered them a doctors note, but rarely did they require me to submit one.

If you let your professors know about your condition at the beginning of the semester, they are more likely to be understanding when you have to miss class or turn in an assignment late.

2) Work with the disabilities center at your school

If you know you’re going to need extra time on assignments and tests, it may be best to take a doctors note to your school’s disability center. Colleges are legally required to work with students that have illnesses/disabilities.

I never had to do this, but was prepared to if a professor ever were to deny me the accommodations I needed.

3) Get a handicap placard if you need one

Most colleges have very poor parking options and require a lot of walking to get to classes. I can’t tell you how many parking tickets/warnings I got for parking at the business school building without a permit. To me, not having to walk was worth the risk of a ticket (that’s POTS for you!).

The thought of getting a handicap pass seemed extreme and embarrassing to me. What if someone I knew saw me? What would they think or say? I’m not in a wheelchair, so do I even deserve one? My friends still knew me as the “climber girl”, so the thought of using one was a bit daunting.

But the reality of my situation was that (most days) I wasn’t able to walk to class. Having the placard would give me the freedom to drive to class and do very minimal walking. When I did end up getting my first temporary handicap placard, I usually parked in the preferred professor lot vs. an actual handicap space (my school allowed this). This made the transition easier for me.

Just remember, it’s okay to get one if you need one. If anyone questions you, just respond by kindly telling them about your condition.

4) Take online classes

My last semester of school, I had 3 classes left to take. I took one of my classes online, and only had to go to campus 2 days a week for my remaining 2 classes. If I had had a full semester of classes to take, I honestly don’t think I could have made it through. Going to campus twice a week was already difficult enough for me.

Online classes often allow for more flexibility with completing assignments and tests, which can be very helpful to those with chronic illness. I’ve had several spoonie friends that have decided to finish their entire degree online, and I think that’s awesome!

5) Bring plenty of water, salt, and medication with you

Make sure to bring all of your medical essentials with you to class. I always brought a large nalgene water bottle with me, extra salt pills, and my medication. The last thing you want is to be stuck in class being dehydrated and extra dizzy.

During the winter months, I often wore compression stockings to class, and that was helpful. Carrying pain medication around with me came in handy, too!

6) Take a semester off if you need to

At the time, the thought of taking a semester off of school felt like defeat or “giving in”. I wanted to graduate on time and I didn’t want to “let my illness get in the way”. But in reality, if I had taken a semester off, everything would have been just fine.

The same goes for you. If you need to take some time off from school to focus on your illness, then do it! Nothing is more important than your health. Sometimes it’s difficult to know when you’re pushing too hard, because it’s going to be tough no matter what you choose to do. But if you can’t handle school right now, that’s absolutely okay.

Here’s a photo of me and my family on my graduation day. I was excited and proud that I was able to graduate college "on time" even though I was quite sick.

Best of luck to all who are struggling with POTS or other chronic illnesses while attending college. It’s tough but definitely rewarding. I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts below.

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