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19 Jan 2021

Student Corner: Invisible Disabilities in Veterinary Medicine

Student Corner: Invisible Disabilities in Veterinary Medicine

This piece was written by Naveesha Kaur Shergill, Chairperson for the International Veterinary Students’ Association’s (IVSA) Committee on Wellness, in partnership with Vet Shows US.

According to the Invisible Disabilities Association, an invisible disability is “a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, yet can limit or challenge a person’s movements, senses, or activities.” However, this does not mean that someone with an invisible disability is less abled. In fact, many people with this condition are known to have professional careers, social lives, and families.

What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you see the word ‘disability? Most people automatically picture a wheelchair, but hidden disabilities have a wide range of symptoms such as debilitating pain, fatigue, dizziness, cognitive dysfunctions, brain injuries, learning differences, and mental health disorders, as well as hearing and vision impairments.

In 2014, a survey conducted anonymously through the Veterinary Information Network (VIN) found that among the 11,000 U.S. veterinarians surveyed, 9% had current serious psychological distress, 31% had experienced depressive episodes, and 17% had experienced suicidal ideation since leaving veterinary school. These numbers are staggering years later, as there is still a lack of education in our community, and without education people are not able to understand. 

For instance, when you see someone in a wheelchair you do not expect them to be able to reach the top shelf. On the other hand, those struggling with an invisible disability such as depression or anxiety are often criticized when they are unable to meet expectations or perform daily tasks effortlessly. With that being said, it is not just depression and anxiety that challenges many in the veterinary community. Joni Edwards was diagnosed with MS in the midst of veterinary school. The National Health Society (NHS) states that Multiple Sclerosis (MS) is “a condition that can affect the brain and spinal cord, causing a wide range of potential symptoms, including problems with vision, arm or leg movement, sensation or balance.” Some other symptoms include fatigue and a decreased performance in learning and thinking. Jodi was fighting her own battles long before she was diagnosed with MS. 

Prior to veterinary school, Jodi was put under an immense amount of pressure to help with her family’s restaurant business and was also battling depression. Nevertheless, she always persevered and got accepted into veterinary school in her 30’s. Everything changed once she started experiencing the symptoms of MS such as intense pain, difficulty walking, and leg numbness. She went through a series of tests before finally being diagnosed with MS. Jodi was forced to use a wheelchair and could only walk short distances; but she was determined to start walking again. While MS is a life-long condition with no known treatment, it is possible to overcome it. In the end, Jodi overcame MS by undergoing challenging physical therapy, and through this, she even found her passion for running  

In addition to Jodi, another member of the veterinary community who has experienced invisible disabilities is Jessica Hirsch. Jessica was like any other college freshman until one day she sustained a concussion that changed her life. She started experiencing symptoms like nausea, dizziness, migraines, joint and muscle pain, difficulty concentrating, and much more. She decided to meet with a specialist and was diagnosed with Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome (POTS), Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (hEDS or EDS Type 3) and Mast Cell Activation Syndrome (MCAS). As part of her treatment, she had a chest port for intravenous fluid therapy that had to be done three times a week but Jessica still suffered from migraines and neck pain. It was in January 2020 when Jessica was referred to Dr. Fraser and was diagnosed with Cranio-Cervical Instability (CCI), Chiari Malformation, and Foramen Magnum Stenosis. Her brainstem had kinked at a dangerous angle and she was warned that even the most minor fall could cost her life. Although she was determined to finish her semester, the symptoms just became too severe to cope with and were interfering with her studies. Finally in July 2020 she took a break and underwent successful surgery.

Having an invisible disability is definitely not a walk in the park and comes with its own challenges. You become a victim of scrutiny when you park in the handicapped spot but do not require a wheelchair to be mobile. At work or in university, your colleagues or classmates may accuse you of being lazy when all you are doing is taking a break; because with a hidden disability, nobody understands just how much effort goes into day-to-day activities. Not only is this mentally and emotionally draining but you start to question yourself - Am I really disabled? The future of invisible disabilities requires a lot of conversation in order to end its stigma. This means something as basic as talking about your hidden illness can go a long way because you are doing your part in ensuring that people are being actively educated on this topic and most importantly, understand how you feel.

If you are experiencing anxiety or in need of confidential emotional support, please text HOME to 741741 (US and Canada) or call 1-800-273-8255.

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