We may be able to take medical leave, but do they want us back?

By Callie Keavey

Opinion Contributor

This past fall, I had to make one of the hardest decisions a student can make: to take a medical leave. On September 8, I started to have a pain near my right hip. I assumed it wasn’t anything too serious and went about my day. But when I woke up the next morning, I could barely make the walk from my dorm room to my class in Health Science. I called my mom because searching your symptoms on WedMD is never a good idea. We came to the mutual agreement that I should spend the weekend at home and see how things progressed.

But more than a weekend passed. I stayed home for about a week and a half, during which I had two appointments with my doctor and no answers. But one morning, my mom watched me struggle to climb the stairs at my house (like most of us struggle to climb the stairs in Old Main) and decided that I needed to get a CT scan that day. Later that afternoon, we got the call that I needed to be admitted to the hospital.

We went to Sisters Hospital and we were informed that I had a retroperitoneal psoas abscess that extended from my kidney all the way down to my hip. For those that may not know what that means, I had a huge, contained infection in my abdomen that was affecting one of the muscles in my leg. I received high-dose antibiotics that day, and the next day I underwent a couple of minor procedures to have the infection drained and a PICC line put in (that’s a long IV that goes from your mid-upper arm all the way into your heart) for continuing antibiotics at home. I stayed in the hospital for three days before being released with multiple follow-up appointments for the following weeks. By that point, I had already missed two weeks of school.

Now, it wasn’t just easy classes I was missing. I was a dual science major taking 18 credits, as well as president of Little Theatre and one of the co-directors for our first fall play. Luckily, I work with some great people in Little Theatre, so they had all of that covered. But the classes were another story. Of course, I had been keeping in contact with my professors, but there wasn’t much I could do from home and I couldn’t really walk, so going to class wasn’t an option. But by the time I was physically ready to return to school, I had missed four weeks of classes. One of my professors suggested that taking a medical leave of absence might be my best choice.

Canisius states that a medical leave of absence should be recommended “when a medical condition significantly interferes with a student’s ability to function at the College” and it is intended to “assist students with a leave of one to two semesters.” To be granted a medical leave, you must contact the Griff Center to fill out an application with “written verification from a licensed health/mental health professional justifying evidence of and/or severity of a medical condition,” and your application is brought before a committee. My application was approved and I was withdrawn from my classes, my campus activities, and my friends for the fall semester.

Granted, that doesn’t seem too difficult. The real fun started when I wanted to come back. I’m not sure if my medical leave experience was especially unique (because my medical problem was pretty much resolved by the time I took the leave), or if it was pretty on par with what other students experience, but getting approved to return to school was a huge struggle.

First, you have to file a different application to return, with more written verification from a doctor that you are fit to do so. Fine, that’s fair. However, until that application has gone before the committee and is approved, there’s a hold on your account. And because of that hold, you cannot register for classes. As a dual science major that had just lost 18 credits to stupid fate, that was ridiculous. It’s next to impossible to get into science classes when you register on time, let alone three weeks late. So at least a week before I was supposed to register, I contacted my academic dean and the Griff Center leave of absence representative. They both told me that the application needed to be approved before I could register, but they assured me that teachers would be willing to work with me on getting forced into classes. I sent so many emails in the following weeks, I don’t think my “Sent” folder has recovered yet.

Despite their assurances, that was not the case. Many professors didn’t even bother responding to my emails. Others did, but apologized because there was nothing they could do. A few were helpful, and I was able to be forced into some classes. But it left me thinking just how difficult this process could be for other students returning from medical leave. By the time I applied to return, I was physically and mentally healthy. But what if another student isn’t? To still be going through something that is so stressful and depressing on its own, and then combining it with uncommunicative professors and the inability to plan for the next few weeks and months of your life? That could cause serious problems. Even though I was well, I considered not coming back to Canisius because it felt like no one cared if I returned. Okay, that’s a gross overstatement because of course my roommate and some of my friends were supporting my return, but very few of the faculty and administration seemed to share that attitude.

From getting the application approved, to registering for classes, to even moving back into my dorm (which still had my empty spot), returning to Canisius was a battle. Apparently it wasn’t hard enough to leave, to drop out of my classes, and to be isolated from my friends. Coming back had to be a fight, too.

But I did come back. This semester hasn’t been easy; I’ve dropped one of my majors to a minor, and I’m still missing some of those friends, but I’m here. I’m building new friendships, taking on too many responsibilities, and procrastinating too many assignments, just like before. But what if I wasn’t? What if I hadn’t fought to return? What if I had been any less determined to get back here?

Canisius certainly didn’t make it any easier. The administration needs to reassess the process of students returning from a leave of absence, because if there are others who have gone through as much of a struggle as I have, I commend you for making it through and getting back on this campus. I know it wasn’t easy. And isn’t the saying “once a Griffin, always a Griffin”?

My response after all this: “Prove it.”

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