When I started university in 2013, I was just the same as any other fresher. I remember the excitement at getting my UCL offer, then my A-level grades, and preparing for a new chapter in my life at university. After a fantastic summer working and going on memorable holidays with friends, I moved into halls in September eager to start the new term. Little did I know that in less than three months, I’d be spending Christmas in hospital, fighting for my life in intensive care and having to leave the university I loved for a year.
The past two years have seen me through three major surgeries, countless doctors’ visits and collectively over 2 months in hospital. My last operation was on December 15th 2015, and I’m over the moon to be able to come into the New Year finally feeling well!
The disease that caused all this was Ulcerative Colitis, an auto-immune disorder that causes your own body to attack your large intestine as if it’s a foreign object. This causes a whole range of horrible symptoms, from internal bleeding, stomach pain, diarrhoea and weight loss, and the list goes on. Nobody knows what causes it, but sufferers often have to take strong medication to control the disease. The only way to cure it completely is to surgically remove the whole of your large intestine.
Throughout 2013, I’d suffered with some minor digestive issues, but I didn’t think they were anything serious. From the start of my first term however, the symptoms had already started to get very bad, but I was so embarrassed that I couldn’t bring myself to see a GP. Being an image-conscious 19 year old, my toilet habits were the last thing I wanted to talk about. I suffered in silence for the next few months, but the disease gradually began to take its toll. Soon I was in the loo up to 20 times a day, bleeding each time, and by the end of October even the five minute walk to uni from halls had become a struggle.
As term went on, I found myself refusing more and more requests to go out, choosing to stay in my room and curl up on my bed to try and help the pain, not wanting to be more than a few metres from a toilet. I’d already made friends in halls, but like any fresher, I wanted to make a good first impression – somehow, I didn’t think mentioning my toilet troubles would help me to gain any friends. So I kept my worries to myself. If there was a particularly important event going on, I’d force myself to wash and dress and make it there so I didn’t miss out – but I’d spend the whole evening either in the bathroom or watching the clock, desperate to go back to halls.
I started to feel really isolated, and my room in halls began to feel more and more like a cave as I’d get in from lectures at 4pm, crawl into bed, and sleep right through until 9 the next morning. Even after all this sleep, I felt just as tired as the day before. Stupidly, at this point I was still telling myself the symptoms would go away on their own. I’d somehow convinced myself that I could just ‘sleep it off’, or it was ‘something I must have ate’.
By December, I felt breathless and exhausted just walking around campus. I still tried my best to act normally – I even helped to organise a Christmas charity party in Farringdon, putting on make-up to hide how pale I’d got, sitting at the side of the room trying to keep a smile on my face as my stomach tied itself in painful knots. In my final tutorial of term, my tutor said I looked unwell and suggested I get a train home – my parents were shocked to see me step off the train grey-faced, thin and weak. I stepped on the scales when I got home and was horrified to see I weighed just over 40 kilos.
A few days later, I saw the GP, who sent me straight to A&E. I was admitted to hospital, officially diagnosed, and spent the next two weeks (including Christmas Day and New Year) being given a concoction of powerful drugs to try and get my disease under control. For a little while, my consultant thought I might be able to avoid the dreaded operation, but on 2nd January 2014 I had a life-threatening internal bleed that saw me rushed straight into theatre, where surgeons removed the whole of my large intestine. As I’d been so weak beforehand, the surgery was a lot for my body to take, and I spent several days wired up to a whole load of machinery in intensive care. My parents were warned as I was taken into theatre that I might not survive the operation. From starting university only a few months earlier, that intensive care bed seemed such a long way to fall.
The surgery meant a large stomach scar and also a stoma bag – but at the time, I was just grateful to be alive. Only a few days after the operation, my consultant surgeon came to tell me that I would need 6 months to recover and advised me to defer from university for the year. I remember bursting into tears as I agreed and she wrote out a note to pass on to the UCL English Department.
At that point, I felt really devastated with the whole situation. Only a few months earlier, I’d been a carefree student just starting university – now, I was seriously ill, had just gone through major surgery, and was forced to drop out of the university I’d worked so hard to get into. Fortunately, the UCL English Department and all of my lecturers were incredibly kind and understanding, and made everything as easy as possible. All I had to do was sign a slip of paper and I was able to restart the course in September 2014.
After nearly a year of recovering, I restarted university with a head full of worries. How much should I tell my new friends? What would it be like being a fresher for the second time around? Would I fit in? I don’t know why I worried though, as very quickly I settled back into the course and met some really lovely people. At first, I felt as if I didn’t fit in with my new course mates, who were all completely new to UCL – but also as if I didn’t fit in with my old course mates either, who’d all moved on to second year. Pretty quickly though, all these worries were resolved and I’ve now got close friends in both year groups.
I still had a lot of health issues, and was visiting the hospital for check-ups throughout the year, plus getting rushed into A&E on two occasions with complications related to surgery – one the night before my 21st birthday! I also had two operations left to go, but I tried to put that to the back of my mind and enjoy the rest of the year. However, compared to how ill I’d felt in that very first term, I now felt so much healthier, and was finally able to enjoy university life. I loved my lectures, getting involved in societies and volunteering. Over summer 2015 I had the second operation, followed by my final one in December to reverse the stoma bag. Right now, I’m feeling fantastic, and not having the bag for the first time in two years is incredibly liberating! If everything goes to plan, I should be healthy from now on and only have to go back to the hospital for a check up every couple of years.
Being seriously ill at university can be a really daunting experience, but it’s possible to bounce back into student life with the right support. Making my department and tutor fully aware of my condition meant they could offer me any help I needed, and Student Disability Services have been brilliant in making exam arrangements and helping me to catch up on lectures I’ve missed. UCL have been so kind and supportive, and I’m really grateful to all of my lovely and caring friends who helped me to settle back into uni life so quickly.
To any other student suffering with any kind of illness at university, I’d urge you to seek any medical help as soon as possible, and not to put it off because of embarrassment or fear. The sooner you get help, the quicker you can be treated, and the less likely that the situation will spiral out of control. Now, rather than letting embarrassment prevent me from seeking help, I’ve got involved in charity work and raising awareness of Ulcerative Colitis to try and break down the stigma surrounding my illness. I’m feeling really positive about 2016, and here’s hoping for a healthy year to come!
Editor’s note: You can find out more about Ellie’s condition by visiting The Crohns and Colitis website.
Ellie is a 2nd year English lit student whose favourite pastimes include cuddling cats and gorging on Ben and Jerry’s. When she’s not delving into Anglo-Saxon poetry or fangirling over Chaucer, she’s probably having a silent disco in her room or watching silly animal videos on Facebook – maybe even both at the same time.