Managing an MPN at school, college or university
Although we’re currently in the midst of the summer holiday, the arrival of August inevitably leads to thoughts of the new term starting in September. It won’t be long before we’re swapping flip-flops for school shoes, exchanging TV remotes for pencil cases, and replacing leisurely lie ins with early morning alarm calls!
With the new academic year fast approaching, I thought I’d dedicate this month’s blog post to managing an MPN at school, college or university. Whether you’ll be in classrooms, workshops or lecture theatres, I’ve compiled five top tips that have helped me along the way.
Of course, there are many lived experiences of having an MPN. You might have very few symptoms, meaning your MPN has little to no impact on your schooling, work placement, or degree programme. Or you might be heavily symptomatic, making studying and navigating everyday life more of a struggle.
Either way, I hope this blog post provides some food for thought and sparks more conversations about the impact an MPN can have on young people at the beginning of their education, careers and working life.
1. Water and Snacks
Keeping hydrated and eating healthy snacks little and often has been really important for me at school and university. It can be dehydrating sitting all day in stuffy classrooms and libraries, which, when combined with LED lighting, can be a common trigger for headaches or migraines. Ensuring you carry a reusable bottle with you makes it harder to forget to drink plenty of water throughout the day. There are so many water fountains dotted about these days that it’s much easier to fill up as you move around different departments and seminar rooms. Some MPN treatments can also lead to dehydration, so it’s vital to ensure you take on plenty of fluids, especially in the summer months.
In terms of food, it can be a long time between having your breakfast before school and getting a decent lunch break. Packing a sandwich, yogurt, or fruit for mid-morning helps keep your blood sugar levels up and mitigates against fatigue. There are often few healthy snacks on offer in tuck shops, cafes or canteens, making it easier to grab a packet of crisps than a banana. I’ve recently discovered Nakd fruit and nut bars, which are made up of 100% natural ingredients with no added sugar. With flavours ranging from banoffee pie through to blueberry muffin, they’re a healthy and tasty snack; perfect for when you’re short on time and need a quick bite to eat.
2. Confiding in a friend or ‘buddy’
Whilst for some people it can be difficult deciding whether or not to share your diagnosis with friends, having someone who you can confide in when you’re not feeling your best and who will look after you if you’re having a particularly bad day can be invaluable. I wasn’t diagnosed with ET until university but was plagued with migraines at school. Having someone who knew what a migraine with aura was, and would take me to the school medical room when I had only half my sight, was so important.
Fatigue might be your biggest MPN symptom, and it could be helpful to chat with a friend and explain how it affects you – and crucially, how it differs from other students complaining about being tired after a late night. It could be something as simple as occasionally carrying some extra textbooks for you or sitting with you in the playground rather than charging after a football. Letting them know when you’re not feeling yourself and when you might need additional help can make all the difference between an average and a bad day. Similarly that friend might advocate for you in social situations. Peer pressure can be difficult to cope with and if you don’t feel up to this weekend’s sports game or cinema trip, having someone in your corner who can dissuade others from pressing you too hard on why you’re skipping ready-made plans can be really important.
3. Preparing as early as possible for homework, assignments and exams
Looming deadlines for class tests, essays, lab reports or end of year exams can create added stress and pressure. Leaving assignments and revision to the last minute, can amplify this anxiety and exacerbate MPN symptoms lurking in the background. Whilst it might sound like a nerdy (and not very cool!) thing to suggest, preparing well in advance and starting work as early as possible can be vital to ensuring you don’t make yourself unwell. Although friends might be pulling ‘all-nighters’ to get an essay in on time, staying up into the early hours can wreak havoc with your body clock and sense of equilibrium. Similarly, the unpredictability of MPN symptoms means you have to anticipate the potential to be knocked for six in the days leading up to the deadline. I know my symptoms are always worse during my period, so I’ve learnt over the years to try and start things earlier than usual just in case I’m feeling unwell in the week a piece of work is due. Having an MPN makes it especially important to look after your body and putting it under added strain is something, over time, I’ve tried to avoid – and not always successfully! The nature of school, college and university means stress is part and parcel of the overall experience. But on reflection, it’s never as cool as you think to leave everything to the last minute.
4. Speaking with the school or college nurse about any care or support you might need
If you’re lucky enough to have a nurse at your school or college, it might be helpful to sit down with them for a conversation about your MPN diagnosis and any specific support you need. Nurses are by vocation very caring and understanding people, and they could play a valuable role in your care whilst you’re busy studying. Frequent migraines meant I was a regular fixture in our school’s medical room, and I’ll never forget how well they looked after me. It might be something as simple as explaining the medication you’re on or talking through your symptoms, and you might find it easier chatting to someone in the medical profession than a teacher or member of staff. Of course, it might be appropriate for them to pass on some of the information within the school – with your consent – to ensure you get the right help and assistance. But starting the conversation with a nurse could be the first step towards establishing a good support system.
5. Getting in touch with the disability service at your university
Finally, I’d say it is definitely worth getting in touch with the disability service at your chosen university. In my experience, the staff are extremely kind, receptive, and have a wealth of expertise based on their work with hundreds of past and present students. Before my ET during my undergraduate degree, when I could hardly move without getting a migraine, it was the university disability service that stepped in to move our class from a top-floor to a ground-floor lecture theatre. No lift meant we all had to walk up multiple flights of stairs, which at 9am proved to be a disaster and an unrelenting trigger for an aura. The disability officer also communicated to the department about my need for printed lecture slides in the mornings when I struggled most with screens and explained to exam invigilators that I needed to take food with me into lengthy exam sittings. When I moved university as a postgrad, the disability office were similarly fantastic, allocating me quiet accommodation with my own kitchen and bathroom. Everybody’s requirements are different, and you might not even know about the potential support on offer. Establishing contact with the disability service when you first arrive means they can listen to your story and put in place plans to support you throughout your degree.
If you’d like to get in touch with Alice about this topic or any of her previous blog posts, you can contact her by email at: email@example.com