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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 26 · Number 4 · Summer 2009


Sick Kids

Letting students take care of their own health is enough to make parents ill.

Students attend college to learn how to get sick. Well, maybe illness isn’t their sole ambition, but it’s a door prize for people who think sleep is something that should only happen during 8 a.m. classes.

Going to college might as well be a formula for infirmity. First, uproot teeming masses of healthy young adults, yearning to be free of parental oversight. Move them to a nice little college town, maybe one with roving gangs of allergens. Squeeze the kids into close quarters with a bunch of strangers whose idea of housekeeping is to stack all the greasy pizza boxes in one corner. Make sure everyone unpacks a colony of streptococci from home to share.

Shuffle these young people around throughout the day and pepper them with questions about peptides and cognitive dissonance and entropy and the subjunctive. Expect them to do their own dang laundry. Add the high-risk elements of the collegiate lifestyle — sex, drugs, Rock Band 2 — and you’ve got some tattered immune systems that are ready to party into the wee hours, until they skateboard home using their iPhone as a flashlight. Really, it’s a miracle that any of these young adults are ambulatory a few years later, when it’s time to cross the stage at graduation.

So when kids in college call home sounding sick, injured, frail or pathetic, most parents can’t help but feel, “Serves ’em right.”

I mean come on, students can remember the isomers of 4-tert-Butylcyclohexanol, but they can’t remember to wash their hands before they eat? Regular exercise, proper nutrition, adequate sleep, good judgment — a little bit of common sense goes a long way toward staying well. That is why a pitiful bunch of young people are lined up at Student Health, sneezing and hacking and leaning on crutches and wearing their pajamas. Wellness is one lesson they have to learn the hard way. Fortunately, there are plenty of germs in higher education that are happy to slap them silly.

Zalesky appointed to parent programs

Maria Zalesky is the director of parent programs, a new position overseen by the Office of Alumni Relations. More . . .

When kids still live at home, all they really know is how to have the sniffles and lie around on the sofa clutching the remote control, working their way through a DVD marathon of The Simpsons. They’re not the ones who decide if they have an illness or injury that merits medical attention. For serious concerns, parents swoop in and shield kids from the grisly realities of managed healthcare: primary care providers, copays, physician’s office phone menus.

So when it comes to taking care of their own health, most young people aren’t handed the reins until they’re living away from home. Some of them catch on pretty quickly. At the first sign of trouble, they consult the experts — at Wikipedia. They might even be savvy enough to find their own way to Student Health, take their medication — as directed — and inform parents after-the-fact. Aaaaah, the healing has begun.

Other kids need to test their physical limits. They catch a cold, neglect a cough, and end up with pneumonia. They take normal everyday cuts, bumps and illnesses and transform them into ghastly matters that require IV drips of über-antibiotics. But don’t worry, parents, because these ailing college students have a message for you: “Mom, Dad, chill! It’s not like it’s a matter of life or death…Oh, really? Dude! My bad.”

What’s a parent to do? When should the cavalry ride to the rescue of sick kids in college?

Heck if I know. I suppose the extreme cases seem clear. What’s murky is the vast middle ground between common cold and intensive care, which is exactly where I stood the afternoon our college sophomore sent me a trickle of increasingly alarming text messages. “Mom, turns out I have mononucleosis.” Uh oh. “I can’t call you because my throat hurts too much to talk.” Yikes. “Don’t worry, I’m in the hospital getting help as we speak.” Holy Cow!

Photo: author sending text message

The only good news was that my rudimentary texting skills sharpened under duress, almost like those people who are able to perform feats of extraordinary strength in an emergency. “Should I come down?” I texted. “No, don’t come down. I’ll handle it,” he replied. Don’t come down?! Here I was prepared to lift a Volkswagen off someone’s chest and drive it 400 miles to be by our son’s side, and he didn’t want me there?

Parents experience a rush of conflicting emotions in the moments after they learn their child is seriously ill. They feel sympathy — “Oh my poor baby.” Panic — “Will he be OK?” Pity — “How could he do this to me?” Once your child is legally an adult, there’s the added frustration of trying to find out what’s happening. When my husband and I called the emergency room where our son was being treated, the nurse gently declined our request for information until she could get his permission to speak to us. “Besides,” she said, “everyone who could tell you something about his condition is in the room with him right now.” Everyone?

Later that day, she called back with our son’s consent to divulge details, preceded by three special words he wanted her to pass along: “Don’t come down.”

That was probably the hardest thing I have ever not done. But text messaging between visits from doctors and nurses was all the support our son wanted during his hours in the emergency room. I, on the other hand, required extensive scaffolding during the days that followed as he filled us in on how he handled the crisis. One detail brought tears to my eyes: “Student Health made sure to send me to a hospital that was covered by our medical insurance.”

So now we have confidence that the next time our kid goes to Student Health and the triage nurse summons a priest to administer the last rites, our son will know just what to do. Show the priest the insurance card. We’re sure that one day our kid will grow sick and tired of being sick and tired. Meanwhile, he’s got the campus safety net, and he knows how to land feet first.


Our son had to drop one class and struggled through the remainder of the term. Once several weeks had passed and he was feeling better, I asked him what he had learned from his experience. “We have an HMO,” he said.

Ouch! Harsh lesson. But that’s why we’re sending him to college.


Robin DeRieux can be reached at