Being a young person with a chronic illness can be extremely isolating, which is why I’m grateful that I met my friend Ellen on my first night of university in August 2016. We became fast friends because of our similarities — we were both two Americans going to school in Montreal and the love that we had for our pets — but I don’t think either of us could see how much our lives would overlap over the next few years.
Over midterm season, I became incredibly ill. I had no idea what was going on, and I was hospitalized for over a week. Despite being unable to consume any food and water and requiring oxygen, the doctors dismissed my health issues as being linked to anxiety and released me to fend for myself for over a year. I was put on a waiting list to see a doctor, but I every time I called for an update, they told me my waiting time could take over a year because of my age.
In early December, Ellen messaged me saying that she felt really sick and was wondering if I could get her dinner at the cafeteria. I did and brought food to her room, and she thanked me. I had no clue that this would be the last time I saw her for weeks. The next day I got an urgent message from her roommate, who is close both of us. Ellen woke up and could not move and was transported to the hospital via ambulance.
Everything seemed like a blur. That day I learned that Ellen had lupus, and she wasn’t responding to her roommate’s or my messages. We hoped this was because of bad Wifi reception in the nearby hospital — which I could attest to — but we had no way of knowing for sure. We were relieved when we finally heard from her close to Christmas.
The doctor that she met in early September to get a Canadian alternative to the American drug that she took to manage her lupus prescribed the wrong medication. She was deathly ill because of a medical mistake. I visited Ellen in the hospital before she went home. It was hard seeing her in a wheelchair and she seemed so out of it because of medication. But it was a relief to see her alive. She went back home to Northern Virginia to begin recovery after her ordeal.
We talked daily during that time, as we still do now. She had her ups and downs. By the fall, I myself was getting more and more sick. When you’re undiagnosed, it’s hard to talk to anyone about how you physically feel out of fear of being told your health issues are just “in your head.” In November, my body was on the verge of giving up on me. I was in and out of the hospital with anaphylaxis-like episodes and my body was going numb.
I messaged Ellen one day when my legs felt so stiff and was in so much pain that I could barely move. She told me that I needed to leave the school that we both attended because I didn’t deserve to be going through what I was. I did leave — but it was almost too late and had a flare that nearly killed me in December 2017. When this happened, I was on vacation in Mexico and was finally diagnosed with vasculitis. I then took my turn at recovering at home in Massachusetts.
Fast-forward to early 2019, we are very much each others support system. We often vent to each other about our symptoms, our hatred of prednisone, our distrust of hospitals after what we both went through, our occasional envy of our able-bodied friends, and how exhausted we are because we understand what the other person is going through. We’re pushing through our illnesses together, and I feel a lot less isolated pushing through my chronic illness with a chronically ill friend who is a constant in my life.