What is your disability?
Honestly, sometimes I really dread answering it, but not because I feel ashamed about being disabled. Telling your story, especially in an online (and public) format, may lead people to think that you've invited them to comment or criticize decisions you've made with your medical team about your own care.
My story started in 2014, my freshman year of undergrad, when I sustained my fourth concussion. Ever since, I have suffered from syncopal episodes, dizziness, nausea, migraines, GI issues, joint and muscle pain, pelvic pain, edema, fatigue, brain fog and concentration issues, plus much more. My junior year of undergrad I saw a concussion specialist who diagnosed me with brain damage from a traumatic brain injury (TBI), with significant memory and attention deficits due to my multiple TBIs. In fact, I was placed in the 37th percentile for memory. In 2017, I was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS or EDS Type 3), and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS) by Dr. Hasan Abdallah at the Children’s Heart Institute. The following year I underwent a diagnostic laparoscopy in that confirmed a diagnosis of Endometriosis.
During the Summer of 2018 I was relatively stable symptomatically thanks to a year of treatments. I had transitioned off all my medication and decided to move away for veterinary school. Fast forward to October, and I entered into a massive flare that never ended. I had a chest port placed for IV fluid therapy 3 times a week during winter break of my first year of vet school. The remainder of my first year of vet school I juggled visits with my nurse, physical therapy in Rhode Island twice a week, working at the vet school as a tech, and extracurricular clubs in addition to classes. I'll never forget how bitter cold I was during the New England months doing my infusions during clinical skills labs with my backpack pump. I'm honestly surprised my line didn't freeze! Eventually, I was trained to become independent with my infusions. I managed the care of my own port and was able to complete infusions overnight rather than during the day. Despite all these treatments, I still struggled with intense neck pain, headaches, migraines, and allodynia. In 2019, I was diagnosed with Small Fiber Neuropathy and suspected Cranio-Cervical Instability (CCI).
January 2020 was when my whole life changed. I was referred to Dr. Fraser Henderson, Sr., at Metropolitan Neurosurgery Group. With rotational CT and upright MRI scans, he was able to diagnose me with Cranio-Cervical Instability (CCI), Chiari Malformation, and Foramen Magnum Stenosis. According to my imaging, my clivo-axial angle (CXA) was 95 degrees. This means that my brain stem had a nearly right angle kink in it. Dr. Henderson even went as far to say that it was the worst kinking of the brainstem he had ever seen, and that I was at risk for respiratory failure if it worsened any more. (For reference: CXA is considered normal at > 145 degrees and considered pathological when < 135 degrees). Even a large pothole or a minor fall could have killed me. I needed to wear my neck brace full time to protect my spinal cord and schedule a cranio-spinal fusion and a cranial decompression to treat the CCI and Chiari Malformation.
I was determined to finish my semester and have surgery over the summer break to avoid taking time off from school, so we scheduled surgery for mid-June. Unfortunately, my symptoms became so severe I couldn't keep up with classes. When I finally decided I couldn't remain in school any longer, I was sleeping 18 hours a day because the fatigue had become so consuming, and I was failing three classes. My medical leave of absence started in April as I awaited surgery, which ultimately took place July 7th, 2020 (#thanksCOVID).
However, I should have never stayed in school as long as I did. I was ashamed I couldn't push through, and I didn't want to add another year to my degree and miss out of graduating with my classmates. I pushed myself beyond my limits because of the stigma that surrounded taking a medical LOA, not to mention the financial implications of taking leave. Take it from me, that was the worse decision I ever made. We as veterinary professionals push ourselves every day to fit in that extra lecture, that extra club, that extra patient, but it's time that we learned to put our own physical and mental health first. There is a place for people with disabilities and chronic illness in veterinary medicine. I have personally experienced countless barriers and ableist standards, and the veterinary industry is no exception. It is my goal to make veterinary schools more accessible for students with disabilities, and aid pre-veterinary students and other aspiring veterinary medicine professionals with disabilities to find their place within the industry without fear of discrimination. There is no shame in taking time to take care of yourself. There is no shame in taking a medical LOA.