Opinion | Why my immunodeficiencies led me to leave the country

My decade-long struggle with my health led me to my decision to leave the country, avoiding the risk of returning to a college campus where students struggle to follow guidelines.


Contributed by Rin Swann

Rin Swann

I’m not a stranger to limited options.

Ever since my diagnosis at 11 years old of Chronic Regional Pain Syndrome and Hypermobility Spectrum Disorder, my world options narrowed. With the COVID-19 pandemic, that gap grew even smaller.

These conditions are rare, genetic autoimmune disorders caused by a dysfunction in my nerve endings and joints that create constant cycles of pain without a cause or end. By their very nature, I am more at risk for developing serious illnesses later on, and I catch every cold and flu that rolls around.

Essentially, I am one of the millions of immunocompromised people at risk for developing complications from COVID-19. So, when the pandemic forced colleges to switch to an online format, I briefly thought, ‘what else is new?’

My relationship with education has been complicated since my diagnosis. I never got through a year without missing more than 20 days of school. My sophomore year of high school, I was in and out of the hospital so frequently that I missed 69 full days of school — not including the half-days I left early because my pain was so bad.

To stay on track, I completed most of my schoolwork virtually from my bed, in pajamas, while my friends were in-person attending sports, chatting with teachers, and talking in the halls. I was so lonely and jealous that sometimes it felt hard to breathe.

I was told I would likely never make it to college. Instead of accepting it, I grew mad enough to push harder, to find new doctors and, two years later, I was accepted into the University of Iowa. It was the closest to “healthy” I could be with two incurable illnesses.

My freshman year was the first time in my life I ever felt normal. I popped into office hours, made new friends, reported for The Daily Iowan, and spent every day grateful that I had a chance to complete my education.

When COVID-19 hit, I was frustrated. But it wasn’t so hard in the beginning because everyone was experiencing the same struggles. There was a community of empathy at first, but as fewer people cared, I grew more worried that COVID-19 wasn’t going to be temporary.

That feeling gained credence when an email popped up in my inbox. The UI was returning to campus. Immediately after that, there was another email from Student Disability Services, telling SDS students to analyze their options and speak with a doctor before deciding to return to campus.

Because my plans to live off campus fell through, I found myself facing another year in the residence halls: a high-traffic, closely populated area where I felt the risk of contracting the virus was too high.

It felt like sophomore year of high school all over again. I was pushed away from friends and my education while offered a choice to return — and maybe risk my life — or stay and lose even more time than I already had. It was the cruelest kind of decision because I didn’t have a choice.

So, I stayed home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I got a job working in the backroom at Target, despite my condition, so I could pay for tuition next semester when I returned to campus. At least there, I felt I could control my proximity to others.

I watched the situation unfold in Iowa; thousands of positive COVID-19 cases, a mask mandate that came too late, bars opening, and social media posts from people I initially liked saying things like, “F Rona” and “I’m not going to die!”

Each time, I wanted to shake them and scream, “You probably won’t. But I might.”

It was the most helpless I’ve felt in years. People my age were experiencing what it was like to be me — to have options stolen from you because it risked your health. But they could choose not to be careful.

As the situation worsened because people didn’t seem to care, I realized I might risk losing my education again. I did not get loans and pay tuition to repeat my high school experience.

I’ve loved Iowa ever since I was 17 and attended the Young Writers Program. But hearing students disregard others, watching the bars reopen, and seeing our administration not punishing those who continue the spread made me feel so disillusioned with the school I still love.

It felt like an ex-boyfriend, saying he loves you but not enough.

I miss Iowa with every fiber of my being. But the pandemic isn’t going to allow me to come back as long as bars remain open, vaccines aren’t distributed, and people don’t feel empathy with those of us who are at risk.

And, as cases climbed everywhere, I realized that maybe the safest place for me wasn’t in America.

After the sixth positive case at Target, I called my sister, who lives and works in the Caribbean. In her country of Antigua, the pandemic was taken seriously, with strict mask mandates and curfews.

Traveling was going to be a risk. But sometimes, you have to take one to feel a little safer.

“I want to come down,” I told her. “I want to live with you for the spring semester.”

A few weeks later, I was on a plane, traveling thousands of miles away while everyone else started classes.

Columns reflect the opinions of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Editorial Board, The Daily Iowan, or other organizations in which the author may be involved.

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