Severe cramping. Vision going out profusely. Dehydration due to extreme loss of blood.
These are just a few of the symptoms of a painful flare-up of ulcerative colitis, a gastrointestinal ailment.
Ulcerative colitis, and other illnesses like it, can create health disparities that are particularly challenging for college students. That’s why a UF student has started a club called the Gastro Student Association.
“Being diagnosed with an IBS or IBD or any other gastrointestinal ailment impedes students and people in their everyday life that forces them to deviate from normal life,” said Adam Bouhamdan, a 21-year-old microbiology and cell science third-year who is the president and founder of the club.
Bouhamdan said he wants to remove the stigma around gastrointestinal issues, as it is a major contributor to health disparities. He suffered from symptoms of undiagnosed ulcerative colitis for three years before receiving his official diagnosis in January.
“People don’t know, but with ulcerative colitis, you are more prone to colon cancer or other ailments because it is constant inflammation in your body,” Bouhamdan said.
Bouhamdan relapsed in the summer while he was studying for his dental admissions test. He experienced a two-month flare.
“It was a very troubling time and a setback,” Bouhamdan said.
Bouhamdan said the vicious cycle of debt involved in dealing with gastrointestinal ailments also highlights the importance of the club. With already limited resources, college students like Bouhamdan are forced to deal with hospital bills, treatment fees and prescription medicine payments.
Bouhamdan’s doctor prescribed an anti-inflammatory drug that works to reduce the symptoms of ulcerative colitis. The brand name of this medication is called Lialda, and it costs $700 per month.
“I told him, ‘I’m a college student and I can’t afford this,’” said Bouhamdan, who is the son of a single mother.
The doctor then prescribed Mesalamine, the generic version of the medication. Mesalamine costs $30 per month.
Bouhamdan said this experience and others like it caused him to grow frustrated with the healthcare system. Though his hospital says it can offer support for people without the means to pay, Bouhamdan’s bills have piled up.
“This drives me insane, because it is a bold-faced lie,” Bouhamdan said.
Bouhamdan said he recently had to barter with his hospital to make a payment.
“It’s just a continuing cycle, and that’s oftentimes how health disparities work,” Bouhamdan said. “This is why people with lower socioeconomic backgrounds have poorer health, because they feel they cannot pay the bill, and it’s proceeding right over college students.”
Bouhamdan said he created the Gastro Student Association Club as a haven for others who have struggled and dealt with these experiences. He hopes to begin every meeting with a speaker, and hopes one faculty member in particular, Laura K. Guyer, will speak at a future meeting.
Guyer is a professor in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, and in 2011, she established the health disparities in society minor.
“What I see Adam doing, and what I’ve seen other undergrads doing, again, you get it,” Guyer said. “You hear the message, and you look around, and you go, ’We can fix this.’”
Hanna De La Garza, 20, a third-year journalism major with a minor in classical studies, holds the position of webmaster for the student organization, which held its first meeting in the fall at the Reitz Union.
De La Garza has been a close friend of Bouhamdan’s since high school, and she said she hopes people see the club as a welcoming forum.
“I feel some people have this misconception that it’s this intense support group where we talk about our gastrointestinal issues, but it’s very personable,” De La Garza said. “I just want to create a space for people to meet others and feel comfortable.”
De La Garza said she is currently focused on spreading the word about the organization through social media and community outreach.
Guyer said she is thrilled Bouhamdan has created a forum for conversation to discuss health disparities in college students.
“One of the things I like to tell students to do is to change the world… that means to change where you are,” Guyer said. “What if you get on fire about an injustice, and you become educated, and then you start educating your friends and family? That’s how change takes place.”
Tara Carroll is a contributing writer for The Alligator.