College Life: What I Learned About Managing Diabetes While Going to College Away from Home

January 5, 2018

When it came time for me to apply to college, my parents and I were a bit concerned. Given what I wanted to study (economics and international relations), we knew I would have to go to a university far from home. As a senior in high school, I had only been diabetic for three years, and my parents and I were apprehensive about how I would be able to manage my condition while I was at school. In the end, I decided to attend the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles on a full-tuition scholarship.


Going to college away from home has its challenges, but is definitely doable. Here are a few things I learned about going to college 600 miles away from home:


1. Before You Leave, Practice Managing Your Prescriptions

Before I left for Southern California, my parents and I asked my endocrinologist to send an insulin prescription to the pharmacy at USC. This would allow me to have access to insulin while at school and get refills quickly. Something I also learned during my freshman year is that keeping an inventory of your diabetes supplies (test strips, pump sites, Dexcom sensors, etc.) is IMPORTANT! There were a few times I had to call home and ask for an overnight shipment of supplies because I hadn't kept stock well enough. In addition, I learned that keeping syringes on hand is vital, even if you don't use them very often. During my first semester at USC, I had a few issues with pump site failures that happened to arise during the weekend, when the university pharmacy was closed. Unfortunately, I couldn't get syringes from the pharmacy down the street because I did not have an insulin prescription there. Now, I keep a couple packages of syringes on hand in case of an emergency.


2. Register with Disability Services

As much as you don't want to consider yourself disabled, it is important to make sure that your university knows you need certain accommodations. During my first semester at USC, I registered with the university's office for Disability Services and Programs (DSP) so that I had permission to care for myself in class and during exams. DSP then provided me with a letter of support that I could give to my professors so that they were aware of my condition and what I needed to do to treat it. 


Giving a copy of my DSP letter to my professors at the beginning of each semester is always awkward for me. I don't like walking up to a world-renowned economist or a brilliant mathematician and basically saying, "Hi, my name is Hailey, and I have type 1 diabetes." Yet doing this has always been met with positive responses. A lot of professors appreciate it when their students are up front about medical issues, and one even thanked me for being so proactive about my accommodations. 


3. Tell Your Roommate(s) About Your Condition

It's often hard to talk to other people about having type 1 diabetes, but it is very important that the people you live with know you have it. During my freshman year, I lucked out and had two wonderful, kind, brilliant and responsible roommates who were very supportive. They also happened to be pre-med and were interested in learning about my condition and how my medical devices worked. In addition to telling your roommate(s) about your condition, also make sure that they know how to treat low blood sugar and where you keep your supplies.


4. Stuff Your Backpack with Low Blood Sugar Supplies

Chances are, when you get to college, you will be walking around campus a lot. And, depending on how big the campus is and what the terrain is like, this means you may be at risk for low blood sugar. I try to carry 3-4 bottles of liquid glucose in my backpack just in case I get into blood sugar trouble. I also keep a little bit of money in my backpack in case I run out of glucose and need to buy a Sprite or something to bring my blood sugar up.


5. Have A Plan for Emergencies at Night

I rely on a Dexcom continuous glucose monitor to manage my blood glucose round the clock. Both of my parents also follow my blood glucose trends at night, so if I happen to sleep through a blood glucose alarm, they can call me to make sure everything gets taken care of. Unfortunately, I tend to sleep through my alarms, which is very dangerous if my blood sugar dips too low.  My parents established a relationship with USC's Department of Public Safety (DPS), explaining the situation and asking that they could come into my room and wake me up if I was unresponsive to their calls.


Fortunately, my parents have never had to call DPS during the night, but one time, they were very close. During my freshman year, I woke up one night to a call from my father, and was very surprised when he sounded scared. Turns out, my parents had been calling me for a very long time, and I had slept through every call! A blood glucose check revealed that my blood glucose was 43, which I was thankfully able to treat. Later, my parents told me that if I hadn't answered that last call, they would have called DPS to come save me.


Going to college with diabetes is daunting, but many students with type 1 diabetes do it successfully. So far, my college career has been pretty successful. That said, I still worry about medical emergencies, as they can happen at any time. Having the support of my parents, my roommates and friends, and organizations, on campus, does give me some relief.

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