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Sick and Injured at College: A Coming of Age Story

March 7, 2015

Over the past week, a plague has stricken Oberlin campus. Our student government has started to hand out "sick kits" complete with packets of Advil and cough drops and little bouillon cubes. Classes and lectures are drowned out by the cacophony of coughs and sneezes. My own room has been completely filled with used tissues, piled knee-deep on the floor and scattered across every surface, hiding my books from sight.

But in reality, the epidemic is a tough-hitting one, and it's reminded me of what it's like to get sick or injured for the first time without your parents. This is one of the pivotal experiences of becoming an adult, or adult-ish, at college. If you remember, the theme of this blog is "adult-ish," which is the general concept of the awkward stage in your life when you cook all of your own meals, but also all of them are tomato soup.

Being sick, and watching a large group of new college student students experiencing their first away-from-home virus, brings me back to the first time I got injured at school without my parents around to tell me what to do. I was one of the lucky few who had the privilege of bringing herself to the emergency room during orientation, freshman year.

Let me paint you a picture. It was the fourth day of orientation, my fourth day at college. I was returning from a glorious bike ride on a sunny and delightful Ohio morning. The weather is magnificent at Oberlin on the first week of school, as well as on the last one before we all go home. I was coasting along the sidewalk that outlines North Quad. I was standing up on my pedals and feeling my skirt whipping around my legs and my hair flying behind my head, and thinking how wonderfully graceful and collegiate I must look.

As I drew close to my dorm, I was intersected by a group of tall, loud boys. The entire freshman side of the baseball team had merged in front of me, not noticing my graceful, collegiate presence.

In this moment, I really had two choices.

Option one:

Make some kind of noise indicating my quickly pending presence. "On your right" or "Coming through" or "Move fast" would all have worked swimmingly. However as I said, the boys were a loud group. Being a somewhat gentle soprano, my voice really thrives at libraries and funerals and on well-connected land lines. I knew that I would not be heard.

Option two:

Slow down. I could have chosen the slow, wobbly pedal, or the awkward dismount-and-walk. But as I said, I was loving my speed and my flying hair and skirt. So instead, I chose--

Secret Option Three:

Still at a full speed and standing, turn off the pavement and onto the grass in the quad. Swerve back towards the pavement in front of the spectators, without noticing the large step up to the pavement hidden by the tall grass. Hit the pavement squarely, stopping your bike entirely, fly forward over your handlebars, and land sprawled on the pavement at the feet of the baseball team, with a loud crash, mildly dislocating your shoulder.

As I scrambled to my feet and my shoulder popped back into its socket, I remember thinking That was not very graceful or collegiate. I reassured the group of watchers that I was fine, denied all offers of help, and scrambled upstairs to my bedroom.

Then came the portion of my day when I realized that I was alone, and not very adult-ish at all. I called my mom and told her through my sobs what had happened.

"Go to the doctor," she told me, calmly.
"Are you sure?" I asked. "The doctor? Do I have to? Alone?"
"If you think you should," she responded, which seemed to me at the time like a gigantic betrayal. If I think I should? Where are the rules? The guidelines? The parental supervision? How can I make this decision? This is anarchy.

Eventually I persuaded myself to go to Student Health, where they but offered me a flu shot and a bag of condoms and sent me across the street to get my shoulder x-rayed at the hospital.

Until that point, I had never been to the doctor by myself, much less the emergency room. A few times I had made my own appointments, and even that felt like a wild adventure. Do I talk to the receptionist a special way? Is there a code?

But as I walked into the Mercy Hospital emergency room and followed the signs to the entrance, and reception, I realized something which both delighted and deeply disappointed me. Adults actually have no secret knowledge. There's no initiation ceremony when you turn thirty-five, and there's no handbook for parents. Adults actually don't already know their way around strange hospitals or airports, and they don't know what's going on inside bodies, or what will happen in the future, or what number on your insurance card means what. They just make it up as they go along, just like you and I. It's absolutely terrifying.

As I entered the x-ray room, the nurse waiting for me gave me a look that said both This will all be all right and Girl, you need to calm down. What she said was "Do you have anyone with you?"

"No," I answered, my eyes welling up. "Nobody."


I'm glad in retrospect that this happened, because it gives me a concrete experience to share with freshmen when they're sick or injured for the first time, or when they're having a bad orientation. "Don't worry," I say. "I was doing fine until I flew off my bike in front of the whole baseball team, and then I cried for days and had an existential crisis about what it means to be an adult. But it all got better."

And it did get better. I made it out of the hospital safely, and months later when I laughingly recalled the experience to my now-solidified college friends, they were amused and supportive. Yet one thing confused them.

"Why didn't you ask any of us to come with you?" they asked.
"Because I'm an adult?" I tried.
"I think it's pretty normal to ask someone to come with you," they explained. "That's not just for kids. Adults are allowed to bring a buddy to the emergency room too."

For all my musings on adulthood, these were the wisest words I heard.

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