Thursday, September 6, 2012

For People with Multiple Sclerosis Who Are Going to School

Recently, I posted a blog for parents with MS who are sending their kids back to school, entitled Back to School Time and Multiple Sclerosis. Indeed, this is a rather hectic time for parents and it comes with certain stresses.

However, these stresses are magnified and very different for the person with MS who is also the student heading back to school. Many people with MS attend school, whether they are young people with MS who are attending college or high school, or older people in graduate school or returning to college at a later age.

I was finishing up my graduate degree when I was diagnosed with MS and had been experiencing symptoms for several years before my diagnosis. Although I wasn't sure what was wrong with me, I knew that I had to do things differently around school than I had in my younger college days.

Here are some tips that I can offer students with MS:

Plan your schedule strategically. To the extent possible, arrange your classes around your MS. Take your classes during those times of day that are your best times in terms of fatigue and other symptoms. Breaks between classes are good, but if you take classes back-to-back, try to schedule those that are in the same building, or at least close to each other. Ideally, you could have a day off each week, or a couple of really light days. In other words, look at your schedule realistically and imagine how it will be to go through it day after day. You may have to delay taking a certain class until next semester or next year to make it work – that is okay. You will get more out of school with a sensible class load and schedule. 

Don't overload yourself. On a related note, don't max out your credits. I never learned my lesson on this one. Sure, it all worked when I was in college and had the stamina to take an overloaded schedule. However, in graduate school, I would still add extra classes just because I could – after all, I had paid for them in my tuition and they sounded interesting. I ended up getting less out of my education by doing this, as I was always frantic (and always tired), trying to keep up with the work by doing the bare minimum. I always felt stressed out and I know this made me feel worse physically. Perhaps had I known I had MS in those early days of grad school, I would have been more sensible and taken a normal load of classes.

Make friends to study with and share notes with. There may be days where you don't feel good enough to go to class. Or, even if you do make it, cognitive issues may get in the way of taking adequate notes or following the lecture completely. A good friend will be invaluable in sharing notes and studying with.

No more "all-nighters" are allowed. I remember how disoriented I felt after staying up all night to finish a project when I was an 18-year-old college freshman. I did that a couple of times in grad school and it took me out of commission for a couple of days. Just don't do it. Plan ahead to get your work done on time. Have a strict schedule and stick to it. People with MS cannot afford to abuse themselves by losing a night's sleep.

Decide if you want to share your MS diagnosis with your professors. Although I found out about my MS at the very end of graduate school, had I known earlier, I would have had private conversations with certain professors about my diagnosis. I probably would not have brought it up to the profs that taught the large classes in the lecture halls. However, for my smaller classes that demanded me to be consistently sharp and prepared, it might have been a good thing to let the professor know that I was not falling asleep out of boredom or that my occasionally unsteady walk was due to MS and not caused by drinking the night before. You may also want to explain why you were or may be absent on occasion. Before you disclose your MS status, though, make sure you know what your reason is for doing so.

The bottom line is that school can be pretty hectic and stressful for most people, but for people with MS, this needs to be reduced as much as possible. You will feel better if you can "do school" in a calm, strategic way, and this will lead to a better all-around experience.


  1. Thank you so much for the tips! I am starting nursing school in 2 wks and am so worried that MS might get in the way. I was just diagnosed in February of this year and so far haven't had any relapses since then. Not sure if I want to disclose my MS to professors yet, I'm afraid that it might be a reason for them to "weed" me out of the program.

    1. I started nursing school 2 weeks after getting diagnosed, 4 weeks after being hospitalized. I had the same worries you had and for the most part, kept my MS a secret but it became harder once I started taking Betaseron and had to cope with side effects. I eventually did a presentation on Sub-Q injections and nonchalantly outed myself.

      Trust me when I say that professors aren't looking to weed you out for medical reasons. I'm assuming you had to submit health clearance forms to be admitted into the program, afterall! No one ever pulled me aside to talk about it, but I did have one professor that was totally fascinated by the way my medicine was reconstituted. I have classmates that have heart conditions, disabilities, even one that's in remission from cancer. Your work, your exams, the way you perform in clinical, that's all that really matters.

      I passed my first semester with a B+. 1/3 of my perfectly healthy classmates flunked out. Despite the incredible stress, I somehow remained relapse free. All the best of luck to you!

  2. Just want to point out that most colleges have an Office of Disability Services that will give you support even if you are not disabled in the strictest sense. An MS Dx was enough for me.

    They send letters to my professors in the beginning of each semester asking for understanding and lenience regarding attendance and things like that that could be impacted by symptoms. All but one of my professors have responded to me personally saying to just let them know what I need and that they want to help me be successful.

    The DA office also gave me great tools like text-to-speech software and free ebook copies of all textbooks I've purchased. This makles it possible to "listen" to the chapters instead of reading- a must for anyone with severe ON or even cognitive issues.

  3. I was diagnosed my first semester in Grad School so I went to each professor after the first class of the semester to tell them that I had MS and while I don't know if accommodations will be needed, I will let them know if something happens to make learning difficult.

    At times things did get bad at times but I did luck out, including a neighbor who was attending a neighboring school and could drive me there and back or a professor who also worked during the day in the same building that I worked in and was able to help me out.

    When I graduated I wrote a letter to the dean thanking each professor by name who accommodated my condition WITHOUT watering down what I needed to learn.

  4. Thank you for these posts. Most people will not share personal, health issues because of privacy or insecurity. I have been blessed to have M. S. for 13 years and I learn more about it everyday which allows me to grow spiritually and physically. THANKYOU!

  5. These are great suggestions Julie. I was in graduate school when I was diagnosed. I finished the bulk of my Master's degree (with a 4.0 GPA) after finding out I was sick, so it definitely can be done. The most important thing is to listen to your body and take good care of yourself but the other essential thing to remember is not to let this disease limit you. Follow your dreams.