November 28, 2022

GUEST ROOM | Don’t Put Your Health on the Back Burner

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The transition of moving away from home to one’s freshman year of college is arguably one of the most unique and challenging experiences a person will face during their lifetime. Stressors grow from day-to-day worries such as “what am I going to have for dinner?” and “what homework do I have due tomorrow” to much greater financial, social and academic responsibilities, all the while maintaining one’s health and well-being. Yet for some, add in the commitment of playing a Division I sport, and pressures and stress levels are likely to reach an all-time high.

Upon entering my freshman year here at Cornell, I was so excited to be recruited to play soccer at such an excellent academic institution. I expected high pressure and to be juggling numerous commitments, just as I had in high school, but failed to realize the huge role that managing my own health was going to play in it all.

Oftentimes, when pressures are surging and stress is looming, sleep becomes lower and lower on one’s priority list; our health gets put on the back burner.

During my first semester here, I fell right into this. I was facing new challenges and pressures that I had never experienced in high school. Fitting the typical college student norm, my sleep and health took a backseat in my daily life as they seemed to be of the least importance compared to everything else I was juggling at the time.

About halfway through my first semester, in the midst of my soccer season, I began to notice that I was abnormally tired and sore, taking practically triple the time to recover from exertion and activities than it took my peers.  

While I believed physical exertion and lack of sleep to be contributing to what I was experiencing at the time, I still felt that it was not solely responsible for what I was feeling. The fatigue persisted throughout the semester, and I found myself reliant on naps just to get through the day.

My friends began to tease me for this, sliding in comments where they could: “Aw Bella hasn’t had her daily nap today…no wonder she’s cranky and tired.” It was upsetting to feel picked on for something I felt I couldn’t control. No matter how much I slept or how I fueled and took care of myself, something always felt off.

As the semester went on, nothing improved. I had been to Cornell Health before for minor colds and illnesses but didn’t have great experiences, as I felt that I never got my problems resolved. That said, I didn’t even want to attempt scheduling an appointment with them to address these new issues I was experiencing. When I got home for winter break, my mom finally decided it was time to bring me in to see my pediatrician. I discussed what I had been feeling with him and so we began what I didn’t know at the time was going to be a long and discouraging journey. 

I jumped from doctor to doctor, each of them drawing blood and performing a variety of different tests all to lead to the same result: they didn’t see anything wrong. The only consistency to this whole process was having my parents by my side throughout.

We went down so many different paths, with each doctor exploring a different organ or body system that they believed was the origin of the issue, yet all these paths still showed that nothing was wrong. Hearing that time and time again was frustrating to say the least, and ultimately defeating.

This cycle repeated for nearly a year before finally coming to an end with a physician who is still my primary care provider today. She was the only doctor who was relentless in her efforts to figure out what was wrong. Unlike others, I truly felt that she believed that what I was feeling was more than just “being tired,” reflected in the numerous visits, phone calls and even text messages back and forth about how I was feeling.

Ultimately, I ended up being diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder. To date, I have been taking medication every single morning since my diagnosis and haven’t felt that same sense of fatigue since. Reflecting on the experience, I am grateful for the unrelenting determination of my current doctor to find a solution to my health problem.

Women make up eight in ten autoimmune patients, and onset of many illnesses begin in the college years. Additionally, many individuals are predisposed to autoimmune disorders, which can be activated by several different factors, one of which is increased levels of stress. Surely, the stress of transitioning from high school to college life is enough to provide the increase in stress levels necessary to activate an autoimmune disorder.

Such is a conversation we’ve not had nearly enough at Cornell, and on other campuses across the country.

Recently, my friends and I started looking into different healthcare apps we could download on our phones. We came across Headspace, Calm and Caraway, which all offer different types of convenient care. Had I known about and utilized these when I was a freshman, I think my whole experience would have been different; having access to care when I needed it most, instead of having to wait until I was home.

Fast forward to where I am today, having been on medication for two years now, I am lucky to no longer feel helplessly tired. Without those lousy feelings holding me back, I have been able to grow into the person and leader that I am today. Specifically, within my soccer team, being healthy allows me to perform my best on the field and serve as a leader for others. As a captain, I need to be a role model for everyone on my team, and even more importantly for the first-years who are now undergoing the same transition I faced not long ago. Watching them juggle the same pressures and stressors as I did my freshman year, I hope to be able to encourage them to put their health at the forefront of their priorities, alongside academics and soccer, as it will have a greater impact on their new college lives than they have even yet to realize.

Isabella DeLew is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.