By Jessica Sanborn
I always knew that I had a “breathing disorder”, a term that conveniently fit my curiously escalating diagnoses that ranged from Allergies to Asthma and eventually settled on Bronchiectasis for most of my teens.
Medically this meant that my large airways were damaged and were prevented from clearing mucus and thus bacteria and infection, but as an active and otherwise healthy teenager all I knew was that I had a nasty cough, something that I touted proudly, like a special talent or battle wound. I never considered the fact that my condition could set me apart from the rest.
Growing up I was the top student, top athlete, Most Likely To Succeed in all that I did and I genuinely believed that there was nothing my condition could stop me from achieving. About three weeks before leaving for a competitive graduate Art History program through the University of Glasgow at Christie’s in London, I got pneumonia.
While this was frustrating, it wasn’t new. I had had pneumonia multiple times as a child and I had just accepted it as something I dealt with from time to time. However, it was soon discovered that a Mycrobacterium Avium Complex, an airborne pulmonary infection that affects immune compromised individuals, had caused my pneumonia and had to be treated immediately. At this point the word “disability” still did not occur to me. I simply agreed to begin a rigorous course of antibiotics for six months or maybe the whole year that I was in London.
Two years out of college I was eager and excited to start school again. I had always excelled in school and I had all the optimism in the world that this would be the start of an incredible journey. And it was, just not the journey I had thought. Months into my program, I found myself fatigued and anxious. It was hard to focus — a problem I had never had before. I was probably coughing more too, but had learned to live with this quirk of mine for so long that I didn’t notice. My parents reminded me that I had gone through a lot recently and still might not be up to my usual speed, a suggestion that I repeatedly dismissed. However, that spring at the beginning of a grueling six-month schedule to write my thesis, it was discovered that my condition had not improved and had potentially worsened.
It shocked me to realize that I had lost more than 20 pounds. I immediately piled on rigorous pulmonary therapy and multiple doctors visits to my daily workload, and somehow completed my thesis in the fall of 2012.
Once back in the United States, I traveled to National Jewish Health in Denver, the leading respiratory hospital in the nation. After days of visits and tests it was ultimately discovered that I had Cystic Fibrosis. Through the advance of genetic testing, it has been discovered that there are variant forms of Cystic Fibrosis, some more severe than others, and mine had slipped through the cracks of the available technology when I was a child. While initially scared, I was relieved to finally have an answer and an improved course of treatment.
Two years, two surgeries, hundreds of hours of doctors’ visits and pulmonary therapy, thousands of pills, and one peripherally inserted catheter used for almost a year of intravenous antibiotics later, I am proud to say that I am on the road to recovery, with a new perspective on my condition and myself.
My thesis was approved the following spring at the height of all my treatment, and I graduated with my MA and MLitt Degree from the University of Glasgow in 2013. I was not the top student, but my success was sweeter than any other I had known. As I held my diploma on a rainy day in Scotland, I wasn’t just recalling the periods of Ancient Greece or the history of the Sistine Chapel, I was remembering the day that I took a 45 minute bus ride in the pouring rain from the library to the hospital where I was told my X-rays and cultures showed no sign of improvement and I should perhaps consider taking a leave of absence from school, after which I took another bus ride back to the library where I worked until it closed, an ability that I now know will take me further than any test score.
I have realized that everyone has a form of disability in their life. But the measure of success is the ability to turn that disability into an advantage. While it’s been frustrating to watch my peers gain professional experience and advance their careers over the past three years, while I have had to split my energy between my professional goals, my worries and my health, I realize that that experience is not a setback: it’s an advantage.
What my resume can’t tell you is that I have gained immeasurable discipline, character and strength by learning to live with my disability. By accepting my disability and modifying my academic process and life to accommodate to it, I have not only succeeded, but I have grown.
Now at Learning Lab LA, I feel privileged and proud to share this experience with my students.
No matter the disability, I truly believe that every child can succeed if they are given the tools to embrace their individual circumstances as a unique opportunity for personal success. Allow the challenges of yourself and others to give you the inspiration to succeed. Click here to for our College Counseling Services.