Immunocompromised is a word that has been tossed around quite often this year. In the terms of the pandemic, it is labeled as a pre-existing medical condition describing these mythical people who somehow can’t handle the coronavirus like the rest of the American population would.
After my first trip to the ER, it took six months for a diagnosis. Six months of constant pain ranging from a dull throbbing in my abdomen to a raging burn that reduced me to a fetal position on the cold tile of the bathroom floor. Doctors told me that I was too stressed, that I must have a stomach ulcer or that I just had IBS. Junior year of high school was supposed to be difficult—this made sense. In response, I mentally dismissed the severity of my condition. For six months, I continued to push forward in my academics, athletics and personal aspirations. I put off doctors’ visits to finish a swim season in which I was barely able to compete due to the overwhelming and inexplicable pain. Lifts before dawn became pretty meaningless since I could barely squat 80 pounds without keeling over in pain. The doctors said nothing was wrong, so why was everything that used to be easy becoming impossible?
As far as autoimmune conditions are considered, a diagnosis at any moment in time is a blessing. Just a name to attach to symptoms can be comforting. However, no diagnosis or treatment can cure an autoimmune disease; it’s a lifelong battle of anti-inflammatory drugs and biologic medications. I’ve never had a consistent period of remission, and I have never been on the same medication for longer than eight months. I’ve tried nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroids, diet limitations with more foods prohibited than permitted and finally biologics. I’ve spent the past three years recognizing the fact that no level of treatment can return me to “normal.”
I’ll never swim at the same level as before. I’ll have to deal with a brain fog that affects my sleep, memory and concentration. I’ll never be able to drink coffee. Let’s face it, no coffee is the real bummer here. Also, let me be clear, this is not a pessimistic stance on autoimmune disease: it’s a story of growth. I have changed a lot in the past three years. I have learned patience in my academic endeavors as I work much slower than before; I learned how to adjust workouts so that I can still play the sport I love, and I learned what foods I can never eat. I miss avocados terribly.
All being said, the pandemic threw another variable into the equation. My medication suppresses my immune system to prevent my body from attacking itself, but it also dramatically limits my ability to fight disease. Take whatever two-week quarantine you had in order to travel in this pandemic and multiply its duration by 12. That’s the reality for many immunocompromised individuals in this pandemic. For me, the adjustment to pandemic conditions was a natural extension of all I have learned as a result of my immune conditions. Social distancing and wearing masks are the bare minimum. I’m not saying it was particularly easy or fun to shut myself off from the world, but it was just as important as all the other adjustments I had to make to succeed. Luckily for me, my three roommates understand this, and I have the privilege to live in upstate New York for the fall semester. I wish I were in Maine. But I know it would not be safe for me in Brunswick. I probably won’t be able to interact with any of you in the spring semester, but hopefully those who are not quite as used to making adjustments begin to understand just how necessary the College’s guidelines are.
As you get used to the “new normal,” the normal I’ve been living in for three years, take these adjustments in stride. They’re nothing insurmountable in the grand scheme of things.
Anna Constantine is a member of the Class of 2023.