The University of Iowa

On Being Sick While Studying Abroad

December 7th, 2015

By Claire Jacobson*

Here's a fun fact about me: I almost never get sick. Aside from my annual two- to three-day stomach flu, usually in December or January, the most I get is allergy-related sniffles or the occasional migraine. Last year, my annual stomach flu fell during finals week of spring semester, which I maintain is the reason I did so poorly on my Computer Science Fundamentals exam. So it has been surprising (and somewhat irritating) to me that in the last three weeks I've gotten sick twice and missed more classes than the previous months of the semester combined.

And let me tell you, there is nothing more lonely or miserable than getting sick so far from home.

sky photo

Another sky photo to help me feel less homesick. This is from the top of the hill of Notre Dame de la Garde in Marseille, where some friends and I went on a weekend trip.

The first incident was actually the weekend of the Paris attacks, which I only heard about by turning on Al Jazeera English while I was recovering. (My Arab Society class was on a weekend field trip to the Tafilalt Oasis, about six hours south of the university, and no one had wi-fi or access to anything more than the barest of rumors of what was happening in France.) After two days of learning about oasis social and irrigation structures and Sufi mysticism, on Sunday morning I started throwing up violently.

It was right about when we were supposed to start the six-hour drive back to campus, so my professor suggested that I stay on in Erfoud (the town in which we were staying) for an extra day to recover. It turned out to be a good idea, since I stayed in the bathroom alternately vomiting and dealing with various intestinal issues for the rest of the day. I missed classes on Monday and Tuesday, and then Wednesday was a national holiday. My professors were happily understanding of my dilemma, having been stuck by myself in a strange city for a day instead of being in their classes.

Marseille street decorations photo

Marseille is all decorated for Christmas, which I've missed while being in a country that doesn't celebrate it. The gingerbread men and colored lights are strung across most main roads downtown.

But normally, as it turns out, at AUI illness is only an excuse if you get a letter from a doctor proving that you were actually sick. I found this out the hard way yesterday, when I again spent a great deal of time throwing up and didn't actually manage to go to the doctor until late afternoon. "You should have come earlier," was the response to my request for an excuse (except it was "il fallait venir plus tôt" because the nurses in the campus Health Center don't speak English). Apparently, if they don't actually witness the vomiting and diarrhea, and you don't have a fever, then it never happened and they won't write you an excuse.

The same goes for some of my professors, who have said things along the lines of "unless you bring me a doctor's note, this is going to count for one of your absences" which count against my final grade. So when I have no medically certified witness to my stomach flu/food poisoning/whatever or migraine (as has also happened), being sick actually means I get a lower grade.

sunset Christmas market photo

Sunset over the Christmas Market, which is apparently a German thing that the French have borrowed. It's basically an outdoor market where people sell Christmas decorations and gifts and food.

So yesterday, I skipped all of my classes for a couple of hours of sitting miserably on the floor in my bathroom, wondering why this had to happen now, and trying to guess when it would be safe to leave the bathroom and try to sleep, and wanting nothing more than to go home because at least then the bathroom would be familiar and my mom wouldn't be so far away.

Claire next to a snowy tree
"Snowy" tree outside the Christmas market– it was fun to enjoy the Christmas-y feeling in forty-degree weather instead of below zero.

But in the end, it isn't as bad as it could be. Having friends to bring me plain food to eat when I don't feel up to walking the ten minutes to the dining hall, or intercede with my professors on my behalf, or let me borrow their notes from the classes I've missed, somehow makes being sick so far from home a little less lonely.

*Claire Jacobson is a 2018 sophomore from Iowa City, Iowa, majoring in French and Arabic with a certificate in writing at the University of Iowa. She is studying abroad this semester on the ISEP Al Akhawayn University program in Ifrane, Morocco.