Coordinated Care: Meeting the Physical and Emotional Needs of Students with Medical Conditions

By Fink, Jennifer | University Business, May 2016 | Go to article overview

Coordinated Care: Meeting the Physical and Emotional Needs of Students with Medical Conditions


Fink, Jennifer, University Business


At first glance, Deyven Ferreras looks like a typical university student: youthful face, college sweatshirt, backpack. But until recently, his backpack carried more than books. Quite literally, it was his lifeline. Inside was a left ventricular assist device (LVAD), a mechanical pump that helped his weakened heart move blood throughout his body.

Ferreras, a second-year student at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts, is believed to be the first college student in the United States to have lived on-campus with an LVAD. Still, Bentley officials initially had some concerns about accommodating him.

"My nurse practitioner and cardiologist told me that when they first talked to Bentley about my condition and heart device, they said 'no' because they didn't want to be liable in case something happened," says Ferreras, who was accepted to the college before he developed end-stage heart failure. "But my health care team set up a meeting so everyone could see me, including the chief of police and health services people. I guess they were shocked by how normal I looked."

The university's hesitation in accommodating a student with a life-threatening condition was understandable. Until Ferreras received a heart transplant this March, he relied on a machine to live. His energy fluctuated with his health, and he had to perform daily sterile dressing changes. Yet he was determined to continue his studies at Bentley, and equally determined to live on campus.

"My diagnosis and LVAD didn't change my mind whatsoever," says Ferreras, who was doing well academically when he had to break from his studies for the transplant.

Increasingly, colleges and universities enroll students with a wide array of physical and mental health conditions. And many institutions, like Bentley, aren't quite sure to how address those needs. Campuses often have many older, not easily accessible buildings. Legal guidelines that put the onus on students to request accommodations--plus the departmentalization of services--can make it difficult to come up with a coordinated plan for a student.

Yet across the nation, colleges and universities are finding ways to accommodate complicated health needs, allowing students like Ferreras, as well as many with more common health issues, to live and study on campus.

Legal considerations

The Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act require institutions of higher learning receiving federal funds to provide accommodations for students with identified disabilities.

Under the law, a disability is a "physical or mental impairment that has lasted longer than six months and substantially limits one or more major life activities," such as seeing, hearing, eating, sleeping, walking, standing, learning, communicating and concentrating, says Claire Hall, an attorney who has served as legal advisor to a university. She currently works for UECAT Compliance Solutions, a Rhode Island-based consulting firm.

The catch: Students have to disclose their disability or need for accommodation; if the student has not done so, the school is under no legal obligation to provide services, even if the need seems obvious. In fact, assuming a student has a disability can get colleges in trouble--it's a form of discrimination, Hall says. "Even if they see the student struggling, until the student says, 'Yes, I have a disability, I need help with this,' you have to work with the student in the same manner you'd work with anyone."

In college, unlike in K12, the onus is on students. "When students are in high school and elementary school, the school determines what they need and provides it," Hall says. "When students move into college, it's up to the student to contact the institution and request any services they might need."

Student identification

It's good practice for institutions to touch base with students who have indicated on health forms that they have a chronic condition. …

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