Always sick: chronic illness in the TMU community


Camille Torrente

For most people, sickness is a temporary affair. After a few days of medication and rest, they can return to their everyday lives. But for some, sickness is a daily struggle, and no amount of rest or medication results in recovery.

The Center for Disease Control defines a chronic illness as one that lasts 3 months or longer. Some people may recover, and some are sick their entire lives. Many of these people are your friends, family, professors, and classmates.

“I passed it onto all three of my children.” said Dr. Jo Suzuki, a professor in TMU’s English department. “It’s one of those things that there’s no cure for.”

Suzuki has an autoimmune disorder called fibromyalgia. It causes widespread bodily pain, and doctors are still struggling to understand the cause. Like fibromyalgia, most chronic illnesses don’t have a clear genetic link, but many are passed down from parent to child.

“I had it all my life and did not know that it was anything unusual or strange, because I’ve never lived in anyone else’s body,” Suzuki said. “So I learned to cope with it.”

Chronic migraines add to Suzuki’s daily pain. They differ from headaches, as the pain is sharp and throbbing. Suzuki rates his migraines based on a ten point scale.

“I almost always have about three or four,” Suzuki said. “When I have one or two, I feel good. When it hits seven or eight, I have to stay in bed. Nine or ten, shoot me. Seriously,” he said, laughing.

Migraine sufferers are usually sensitive to light, sounds, and smells. Because of this, Suzuki keeps his office dim. Two desk lamps are the only source of illumination.

“Sometimes I come here with a pretty bad migraine, and I have to tough it up for three hours,” Suzuki said. “Then after that I come back to my dark office. I can’t handle those fluorescent lights.”

Many students have chronic illnesses as well — an additional struggle on top of an academic load.

Jacob Reichard is one of these students. His main illness is Ehler’s Danlos Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affects collagen. Collagen is a connective tissue that makes up every part of the body, and is involved in every organ system. Because of this, it causes other illnesses.

“I made a list for my friends, to explain it to them,” Reichard said. “I had a stroke. That was fun. Major insomnia. I have seizures. Can’t think to save my life. That’s about it. The usual. Basically, I can’t function.”

Like many students with chronic illness, Reichard struggles academically. Daily pain and fatigue make it difficult to do schoolwork or attend classes. Although he was an on-campus student just last year, Reichard recently moved into his parents’ home to manage his health. He is now taking online classes through TMU.

“I can’t think. I can’t speak,” Reichard said. “So classes are hard. Everything is hard.”

Chronically ill students can ask for academic accommodations, which allow them to have extra absences, extra time on assignments, and other allowances to make school more manageable. But academics aren’t the only struggle.

“It impacts every area of life. It makes it a lot harder. And it’s the areas that you don’t expect rather than the obvious ones,” Reichard said. “It’s hard to have the energy to take a freaking shower. Who can’t do that? Who can’t brush their teeth? That’s what a normal person can do. And if you can’t do that, then you’re just this weird abnormal person.”

Social stigma is an added difficulty for those already struggling with their health. Many people decide not to talk about their illnesses because of the judgement they’ll face.

“Most people that don’t have chronic health issues, they don’t get it,” Suzuki said. “You’ll hear all kinds of stuff from people who don’t understand. ‘Tough it out.’ ‘If you’d only trust God.’ And all the irresponsible medical advice.”

But judgmental statements aren’t the only thing that hurt. Sometimes, it’s silence.

“It’s almost like you’re on a New York street,” Reichard said. “You’re just one person in the crowd.”

Reichard uses a cane and occasionally, an oxygen tank. But even with visible markers of his illness, he still finds himself struggling alone. Sometimes, when he drops books in crowded areas, people simply pass by. And other students have nearly stepped on him at crowded events.

“It’s not that I expect help, because that’s a very entitled perspective,” Reichard said. “But I do feel like, as believers, that is the attitude we should have.”

Although many people can be dismissive and ignorant, there are still those who are willing to help. And with chronic illness, help is essential.

“You have to learn to rely on other people,” Suzuki said. “Not everybody, but there are some people that God specifically sends for you, so you can rely on them to get you through the difficult time. And that’s humbling, very humbling.”

Reichard has several friends in the dorms who help him with daily tasks. But sometimes, the blessing of aid can become an emotional burden for the recipient.

“It’s kind of a double edged sword because the people you rely on most become the ones that you feel you let down the most,” Reichard said.

Feeling helpless, unproductive, and reliant on others can lead to shame. But Suzuki thinks that shame should be released.

“I see a lot of people suffer from totally unnecessary guilt that comes from a misunderstanding of what God expects you to do in life,” Suzuki said. “When your body shuts down, you just can’t do it. All those lofty ideals you have, goals you have, you just can’t.”

Although chronic illness makes all aspects of life more difficult, people still find things to be thankful for.

“Both of my girls, because of their health issues, it helped them to be drawn closer to God,” Suzuki said. “To compare to the people that are well, I think we have that advantage in understanding God’s sovereignty.”

Whether it’s Job suffering through multiple tragedies, or people wading through the pain of chronic illness, God orchestrates the rhythm of our lives. Even if we don’t like it.

“God doesn’t necessarily want you to be healthy. God doesn’t necessarily want you to go to college. God doesn’t necessarily want you to get a good grade,” Suzuki said. “Sometimes you’ll get better. Sometimes the Lord may heal you. Sometimes the Lord may heal you temporarily, and it may come back. Whatever He does is good for you.”

For many, there’s comfort in knowing that Jesus came to earth as a man. He felt the weakness of a human body, and suffered the same way we did.

“The Lord understands what you’re going through,” Suzuki said. “If you’re dealt a bad hand genetically, that’s not the end of your life. You’re going to be comforted.”