Living with a chronic illness during COVID-19

Neelam Bohra

When her lung ruptured, Heather Norman continued her online summer classes from her hospital bed, but said she struggled to receive online accommodations for her fall classes.

One of Norman’s original professors would not offer an online version of their course this fall, which Norman would need in order to graduate. Norman said if she took an in-person class, she would need to periodically take off her mask because of her lung.

“My (Services for Students with Disabilities coordinator) said, ‘If you want to take the class, you would have to leave the building and go to your car to breathe, and then come back in the building,’” said Norman, a psychology, history and American studies senior. “Literally, I can’t walk, and I can’t breathe. How am I supposed to walk all the way to the building and then somehow make it back to class and not miss the lecture?”

Autoimmune diseases, chronic illnesses and conditions that require immunosuppressive medication weaken the immune system. Students with weak immune systems like Norman said the pandemic creates a strange contrast in their lives — online classes make learning more accessible, but they are strictly isolated or risk high stakes to leave their homes.

Norman has multiple chronic illnesses — including complex regional pain syndrome, fibromyalgia and postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome — that cause symptoms like chronic pain, fatigue and irregular heartbeat. She also has hypermobility and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which can cause her internal organs to tear.

“(COVID-19) has made (life) better and it’s also made it worse,” Norman said. “With the face mask rule, on the one hand, it’s very important for people to wear face masks because I could literally die. On the other hand, there’s times when I have to pull my face mask down for a moment. … It’s just a mess.”

SSD said they cannot comment on specific student situations because of confidentiality rules.

Kathleen Harrison, communications manager for the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, said professors may struggle to teach remote and in-person versions of their courses simultaneously, and cannot necessarily offer online accommodations to students with higher risk of infection.

“When a student is at-risk for infection (e.g., immunocompromised) but is not sick or in quarantine, faculty are not necessarily required to provide an accommodation for an in-person-only class,” Harrison said in an email. “The recommendation is that students avoid this situation by enrolling in online classes and avoiding in-person ones.”

Christopher Quarshie, a North Texas infectious disease specialist and a member of the Infectious Disease Society of America, said an immunocompromised person with COVID-19 may experience a longer-lasting infection and a higher risk of mortality, regardless of age.

“Your immune system is the essential component of treating an infection,” Quarshie said. “Without that, your chances of healing or recuperating are much less, and for COVID, your immune system is like a gold mine.”

Balancing student life with a chronic illness

Autumn Lanning, a history and government junior, has rheumatoid arthritis that causes them chronic pain, fatigue and fevers, which sometimes keeps them in bed all day. They said it is easier for them to attend online classes, but the option to take them should have existed before the pandemic.

“It took an entire worldwide pandemic for classes to even have the option to go online (and) for (UT) to even take a look at the attendance policies,” Lanning said. “Hopefully, if anything comes out of this, (more accommodations) will, but I am not going to hold my breath.”

Although all of their classes are online, Lanning said they live near campus because they could not break their lease, and their financial situation requires them to break quarantine and work a job. They said it frustrates them when students break safety protocols.

“In my head, I’m just like ‘Hold your breath,’ and I pinch my mask tighter,’” Lanning said. “I don’t think I would (go out), even if I was completely abled, just because of the risk of other people and also because abled people are getting affected by it too. But, just the thought of having that sort of like bliss-free nonchalance to everything— that does sound kind of nice.”

Sustainability studies senior Annabeth Cummins has Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks her thyroid and forces her to endure daily chronic pain. She said her fight-or-flight instinct kicked in when two people entered her apartment laundry room without masks.

“It’s weird because it was just a girl my age, but the closer she got to me, the more I felt really anxious about it,” Cummins said. “I shouldn’t have to tell someone that I’m high-risk to get them to care. … I’m angry at people that won’t take the time to consider others, but also at UT and their lack of putting in regulation to ensure that people are protected, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, we have to trust in everybody.’”

UT requires students to wear masks in campus buildings at all times and social distance while eating or drinking on campus, according to a campuswide message from UT President Jay Hartzell June 29.

Cummins said she chose all online classes but lives near campus because she could not break her lease. She needed an internship credit to graduate and said she struggled to find a remote internship for her major.

“There was so much anxiety around making the class schedule that would allow me to graduate but also not endanger me,” Cummins said.

Cummins said she wanted to have more college experiences, but most are not possible before she graduates this semester.

“It sucks to know that other people still get to go and have fun, but also, I feel like, ‘Why are you there?’” Cummins said. “‘You shouldn’t be there. No one should be there.’”

Norman said she was able to take all of her classes online after a month of communicating with University officials, and she will still graduate on time.

“It’s my last semester, and honestly, a lot of people (with chronic illnesses) like me end up not graduating,” Norman said. “I just really thought to myself, … I don’t want this one class to be the reason why I don’t graduate this semester. … I don’t want to have to put off my dreams because of a chronic illness.”