a hand holding an apple

Living With Multiple Chronic Health Conditions

Being a medical student has given me a really interesting perspective into the health care system. I mean even before I was a medical student, I had seen more of medicine than most as a patient, volunteer, and researcher. 

Sickle cell doesn't make me invincible

I get into this habit of thinking that because I have sickle cell, I can’t get anything else or attributing every ache and pain to sickle cell. But I’m still human, I’ve had a cold and strep throat more than a few times. But the thought of having more than one chronic illness is something that I struggle to cope with.

Another chronic illness

I remember once crying in undergrad after finding out I had anxiety. I asked my friend who could possibly love me if I had two chronic illnesses. I had already felt like a burden with just having sickle cell, I couldn’t deal with the idea of having anxiety too.

But I got help, started seeing a therapist, and though I still get anxious sometimes and sometimes feel like I burden others with all of my strong feelings, my therapist really helps me cope. And I’m learning healthier cope styles, though I’m still struggling to replace some of the not-so-healthy ones.

The worry of other illnesses

I also worry about developing other illnesses too. As a medical student learning literally everything there is to learn about all the ways in which we can get sick. I find myself struggling with medical student syndrome. Basically, every time I learn about something, I then worry that somehow, I have the rare disease I just learned about. But what’s really scary, is learning about the common things that anyone can get, like diabetes.

Medical student syndrome

I remember having to tell an actor who was pretending to be a patient that she had diabetes and how poorly she responded to what she felts was life-changing news. She worried about having to inject herself with insulin and changing her diet for the rest of her life.

As I learned more and more about diabetes, I started to get really worried about my own blood sugar. See, I have a major sweet tooth. Ever since I was a child, juice has always helped me decompress from any overwhelming feelings or stress I was experiencing. And as an adult, that still holds true. I don’t really drink caffeine or pop or alcohol, but I love juice. I tell myself it’s a healthier alternative, but juice has a lot of sugar, especially my personal addiction – lemonade. It’s basically sugar water. According to the American Heart Association, a man should only have 36 grams of added sugar a day and a woman 25 grams per day. But one glass of lemonade has a lot more than that.

Taking steps to avoid another lifelong condition

When I have pain, I see it in my head. It’s like a character I personify. I can imagine the pain flowing through me like an angry stream. And sometimes lately I wonder if the pain is really sickle cell or somehow all the excess sugar is clogging up my blood vessels. But that’s not really how diabetes works. It’s more about how much work your pancreas’ special cells – called beta cells – are doing. When your beta cells can no longer keep up with how much sugar you’re consuming, then you may start having symptoms of diabetes. Symptoms include increased thirst, having to go the bathroom more, increase appetite, and increased fatigue. I hope my pancreas and my beta cells are really good at their job, but just in case they’re not, I’m taking steps to make sure I watch my sugar.1

Looking healthy vs. being healthy

People often think that I’m healthy because I look healthy, specifically tall and thin. But I’m also pretty sedentary and spend most of my time studying so I often don’t have time to cook healthy meals. I could definitely do better with my diet and exercise. I’m taking one step at a time to take better care of myself. I’m starting with having three real meals a day so I don’t feel the urge to snack, which will help me avoid sugar. I really need to stop drinking so much sugar in juice, so I’ve switched to consuming fruit to clench my sweet cravings.

I still have to be careful to not eat too much though. What helps me the most, is not having juice in my house, so I’ve stopped allowing myself to buy it. Sometimes I cheat or reward myself with a little something special. Most importantly, I’ve learned to be kind and patient with myself. So even if I have too much sugar one day, I can try to be better the next day. And even though sickle cell is my main health concern, I have to think of my health and body more holistically so I can take better care of it. All good things in moderation.

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