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Going Back to School With MS: Sara's Story
Multiple sclerosis doesn’t have to keep you from going back to school. Meet one woman who made it happen.
By Jennifer Acosta Scott
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Completing an intricate research paper in college is difficult. Completing it when you have multiple sclerosis (MS) can sometimes be nearly impossible. San Francisco Bay area resident Sara Collier-Byrd knows this well.
Diagnosed with MS at age 28, Collier-Byrd re-enrolled in college in late 2012 to finish her bachelor’s degree in English. Though she says some days are fine, others bring a tiredness that is overwhelming enough to stop her from getting anything done.
“Individuals with MS know that there’s a special kind of fatigue we have,” Collier-Byrd says. “Everyone experiences fatigue, but MS fatigue is different. For me, it borders on narcolepsy at times. There are things you have to get done, deadlines — but if you get knocked out by MS, you can’t push through it sometimes.”
Despite the challenges, Collier-Byrd graduated in spring 2019 and now works for Google. She blogs about her experiences with MS at Diagnosis: Multiple Sclerosis.
MS and Inspiration in the Family
Collier-Byrd is proof that MS isn’t always a roadblock for people who dream of going back to school, even if her path to education wasn’t straightforward. She attended Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, after graduating from high school in 1998, but finances forced her to leave after just two years and take a full-time job in telecommunications. In 2008, she was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis.
“MS runs in my family,” says Collier-Byrd, whose father and aunts also have MS. “I knew what symptoms to look out for. I had suspected for a few years that I might have it.”
Her family serves as an inspiration to her. “I can feel pretty down about it sometimes when I feel physically limited or when I’m in more pain than usual for long periods of time," she says. "My dad and his sisters are tough as nails about it though, and they soldier on in a way that would make you think they are perfectly healthy.” But, she admits, she worries that other relatives might be diagnosed with MS before researchers can find a cure.
Seeking Flexibility at School and at Work
When Collier-Byrd disclosed her condition to her work supervisor at the telecommunications company, he informed her that she would probably lose her job. Panicked, she began working long hours for added security. She kept her position and was even promoted, but the experience made her start thinking about what she might do if her MS ever made it impossible for her to work outside the home.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty with MS,” Collier-Byrd says. “You don’t know at what point something might happen that precludes you from being able to work in an office.”
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Collier-Byrd leaned on her employer to find a way to expand her long-term options. Her company offers tuition assistance for employees who would like to return to school, so she enrolled in an online degree program at Ashford University. The school’s solid reputation and its offering of a specific English degree attracted her, and the flexibility of online classes enabled her to complete courses while working.
“That meant I could go home and write papers at night rather than having to switch to a third-shift position and change my career path,” she says. Two years after she began her degree program, Collier-Byrd and her husband moved to the West Coast for his work. She transitioned to a different group within the same company, but initially found herself juggling work, school, and three to four hours of commuting daily. Finally, she was able to shift to telecommuting.
“I worked from home, although I still had a desk in the city if it was ever needed," she says. "This accommodation was a godsend, and the time I saved on the commute was funneled directly into my studies.”
Coping With Cognitive Difficulties
The path to a degree hasn’t been easy. In addition to fatigue, Collier-Byrd experiences some cognitive difficulties because of MS, which makes it harder to concentrate. “It takes about two times as long for someone with MS to absorb and process information as someone who does not have MS,” she says.
Collier-Byrd credits her husband, Will, with helping her balance work, school, and MS management. “He understands if I need to be alone to pay attention to what I’m writing,” she says. “I can also bounce ideas off of him when I’m discussing topics for papers and things like that.”
Her husband says he also tries to help by taking the lead on some household responsibilities when she is busy with schoolwork. "I try to do the laundry and help with cleaning and housework so Sara can stay focused on school," he says. "We take turns cooking dinner, and I keep the cats entertained and out of her hair."
Weighing Your Options
People with MS who make the decision to return to school should carefully consider all of their options before they enroll anywhere, Collier-Byrd says. First, they should make sure that any university they attend, whether online or brick and mortar, is accredited. If they choose to attend in person, they should also consider the physical demands that will be placed on them as they move from class to class.
“So many of us [with MS] are very heat-sensitive,” she says. “If you’re walking on campus in the springtime, that’s something to consider. By the time you get to class, you may not be capable of engaging in the discussion or even staying awake.”
Many schools will provide accommodations for students who have physical or cognitive difficulties related to MS, says Angel Blair, a client services specialist at the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America. Prospective students’ first stop should be at their college’s office of disability services, which can provide information on the type of assistance that's available.
This could include a note taker, additional time for exams, or even just extra time to get to class, Blair says. Students who have physical challenges should check out the campus and the classroom buildings to get a feel for how much walking and stair climbing they may have to do.
Once you’ve signed up for classes, you should also talk to your professors, says Blair. “Meet with professors to make arrangements for recording devices, ask for additional time for exams, and just be open with what your skill set is and where you might have some challenges with the coursework,” Blair says.
If students run into problems getting accommodations they believe they're qualified for, they should contact their state’s disability advocacy agency, Blair says.
Seize the Day
Collier-Byrd admits that being a student with MS is a struggle sometimes. Her greatest difficulty came when she was trying to commute to work, walking up to six miles total while carrying her laptop and books so she could also study. But she doesn’t regret it for a moment.
“I can tell my cognition has improved somewhat since I started going back to school,” she says. “I can come up with more creative solutions at home and at work. I’m more thoughtful when discussing philosophy and life in general. There’s never a perfect time to go back to school. Do it now. Do it while you can.”
Additional Reporting by Madeline Vann, MPH.
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