Student works to bring awareness of invisible illnesses

Lauren Piro

We live in a world where all not is as it seems. Secrets are kept, emotions are hidden and the truth is sometimes veiled in lies. Whether or not these situations are intentional, complete understanding of those around us is difficult to achieve when we are unknowingly in the presence of what we cannot see. For some, this issue is purely emotional, but for many others, it is also a physical problem. The term “invisible illness” is used to describe a broad range of serious conditions that cause symptoms like chronic pain, discomfort and immune system problems.What makes this category of illness so particular, however, is the fact that to those who are not afflicted, the conditions are hidden and hence are sometimes treated as if they did not exist. Examples of these incurable illnesses include diabetes, cystic fibrosis, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome and osteoarthritis, to name a few.While many people deal with these illnesses, their lack of visible symptoms causes misunderstanding and mistreatment. The phrase, “But you don’t look sick,” symbolizes the obstacles that people living with invisible illnesses face everyday. Invisible illnesses can be misunderstood by even close friends and family members of those afflicted. Many with these conditions find daily activities difficult and can become seriously depressed in the face of these roadblocks and the lack of understanding from those around them. Villanova junior Jennifer Dorfman is one of the millions living with invisible illnesses. Her story highlights the hardships and hindrances many face due to their illnesses and also the need to eradicate misunderstanding of these conditions through education. Dorfman traces the appearance of her symptoms back to when she was two years old; however, it wasn’t until high school that her chronic pain resulted in the diagnosis of several invisible illnesses. Her primary condition is Sjogren’s syndrome, an illness that attacks the body’s moisture-producing glands, but she is also inflicted with localized scleroderma, Raynaud’s disease, autonomic dysfunction and osteoarthritis. In addition to her conditions’ painful and uncomfortable symptoms, the medication Dorfman is prescribed to help deal with the illness has a detrimental effect on her immune system. She is much more susceptible to getting sick and has often dealt with seasonal cyclical infections. But by simply looking at her, you would never know it.These conditions have caused Dorfman problems in her everyday life, including school attendance and participation in extracurricular activities, yet people do not understand that she is sick. “You don’t look at me and think I look sick,” Dorfman says. “People definitely thought I was a hypochondriac.”Dorfman remembers cases in grade school, when the school nurse would think she was lying about being sick just to get out of class. Today she has been harassed for using a handicap sticker, as if she is exploiting its use by not being “sick enough,” and she has had problems holding a full course load at Villanova. In the past, Dorfman received Americans with Disabilities Act agreements from her teachers about her class attendance and workload, and at Villanova, most of her professors are understanding, but she continues to run into red tape, apathy and even anger from others who don’t understand her conditions. She says that Villanova has been as good as it could be when dealing with her illnesses, but she often finds that people simply do not know what to do with her. This became clear when she was directed to the Office of Foreign Affairs for help dealing with her illnesses at school, a resource that does not seem to fit her problems. Dorfman is determined to raise awareness on invisible illnesses and create connections for those who are afflicted with them. One of the biggest problems in dealing with these illnesses is difficulty in finding support.”My goal is to raise awareness, first of all,” Dorfman says. “If people know these things exist, they can find other people for support. They’ll know how to work with them and make things better for everyone who is around them.”Through education and awareness, Dorfman believes prejudice, mistreatment and misunderstanding toward those with invisible illnesses can be eliminated, and better resources can be made available for helping these people deal with their everyday lives.Dorfman’s long-term goals include starting a non-profit organization geared toward networking, support, information and resources on invisible illnesses. Now, however, Dorfman hopes to help organize and run an on-campus awareness event for her cause. She hopes the event can incorporate student and faculty speakers, as well as a presentation by an expert, all aimed at fostering awareness in the Villanova community.From there, Dorfman hopes the event can be an ongoing project that can grow into increased understanding, resources and connections for those with invisible illnesses. For more information on invisible illnesses and the event, Dorfman can be contacted through her homepage, Dorfman hopes that with heightened awareness and respect for this cause, invisible illnesses can perhaps one day become not so invisible after all.