Thriving in Medical School with a Chronic Illness
The views and opinions expressed in this collection are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Haarika Srinath is a second-year medical student at the Keck School of Medicine of USC from Fremont, California. She cares about promoting wellness and discussing mental health.
During my first year of medical school, my chronic illness progressed significantly. I found myself learning how to be a provider while also being a patient. I’ve had my illness for 10 years, but I was never open about it until I got into medical school. Supportive professors, deans, and the worsening of my health convinced me to be more vulnerable about my illness, and it was one of the best decisions I made. I was finally in a place where people wanted to learn and actually listen to me talk about my chronic illness.
Because of my openness, I learned from many fellow classmates about their own health challenges. I even found a classmate who had the same rare illness that I did. One day I got lunch with some classmates, and we organically started talking about the difficulties of managing a chronic illness during medical school. It was really nice to be around people who understood exactly what I was going through. And because we don’t “look” sick, it was nice to have other people who truly understood the validity and impact of an invisible disease.
That lunch inspired me to start a Chronic Illness Social Support Group for medical students, so all Keck medical students could experience the same informal support I found during my first year. I wanted to create a safe space where we could talk about our lives. I wanted to show other medical students with illnesses that they were not alone and could rely on each other for support. I wanted to promote wellness by discussing the complexities of life with a chronic illness and the added emotions from learning how to be a provider while also being a patient.
Among other things, our group has discussed topics like the repetitive nature of explaining your illness to friends and family who don’t fully grasp the long-term nature of our illnesses. We’ve all had to reexplain ourselves when well-meaning people ask, “Are you better now?” We’ve talked about the amount of time and level of vigilance needed to navigate healthcare and insurance. We’ve touched on how our illness affects social situations since it is difficult and sometimes awkward to explain how your illness is impacting your life when you appear healthy. We’ve shared our experiences about dealing with the uncertainties of the course of an illness, the side effects of medications, and how our illnesses have impacted our performance in medical school. We’ve talked about our wellness and how we take care of our mental health. We’ve explored getting support online through social media. But most commonly, we just update each other on our lives and the course of our illnesses.
At our meetings, we’ve gone from joking about the uniqueness of our paths to sharing coping strategies. Our members range from first to third year students and we have made connections with residents and attendings with chronic illness who are there to serve as our mentors. Having a social support group has been very beneficial to our members because it is validating to hear each other’s experiences and lean on empathetic peers when needed.
In terms of the format of the group, I have been formally trained to facilitate peer support groups, and we meet once a month off-campus at a restaurant or cafe. It was very easy to create an unstructured social support group at Keck, especially with the guidance of our Medical Student Wellness Director, Dr. Chantal Young, and the advice of our Deans, Drs. Karen Restifo and Stephanie Zia. It is my hope that all medical schools will adopt similar strategies to support their diverse subset of medical students with chronic illness.
Second Year Medical Student
Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California