Avoiding embarassing discussions with my professors.
November 15, 2010 10:51 AM   Subscribe

I have iron-deficiency anemia. It's kept under control most of the time, but during my menstrual cycle gets bad enough that I'm exhausted 24/7. i'm a freshman in college and I usually miss a few days of classes when this happens.

Recently one of my professors has suggested in a rather displeased way that I've simply chosen not to attend class and not put effort into the work necessary to do well because I've been missing class and not saying why. I'm doing quite well in all my classes and i was hoping that would speak for how serious I am about school, but it hasn't.

I don't want my professor to go on thinking I'm a slacker. I also don't want to ever mention the words "menstrual cycle" to her. I'm pretty embarrassed about this. What can i tell the professor that they don't think I'm lying but also don't need to know all the details?
posted by Pericardium to Health & Fitness (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You can certainly say that you suffer from anemia without having to explain the reason for your anemia. In the event that your professor doesn't believe you, it is possible to get a note from your doctor to confirm that you do suffer from chronic anemia. Presumably you are already taking care to get extra amounts of iron in your diet, but perhaps you could work on that, too. I hope that you are not a vegetarian, because liver is the richest source. It's very nice with sauteed onions.
posted by grizzled at 10:56 AM on November 15, 2010

Get your doctor to write a note.

Ask him/her not to mention your period. Something along the lines of "Mrs. Pericardium suffers from iron-deficiency anemia. This causes extreme exhaustion."

If she has issues with this. Make sure you have documented medical evidence to prove why you're missing classes. Go straight to the dean.
posted by royalsong at 10:59 AM on November 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I thought medical documentation would have to explain why I was only unable to come to class some of the time?
posted by Pericardium at 11:02 AM on November 15, 2010

IANAL: I can't see why you would have to divulge private medical details. I think the act of having a medical professional go: "Ms. Pericardium missed classes on 11/15/2010 due to illness. - Dr. Person" should be sufficient excuse. If she/the school wants more details, tell them that it's personal.
posted by royalsong at 11:08 AM on November 15, 2010

I know it's an uncomfortable subject, but much better to bring it up than have your professor think you are a slacker. She's a woman, and a real person, you should expect her to react with professionalism.

I agree, the correct answer to this question is to provide a doctor's note. And you're right, I think your doctor's note will have to say something about these symptoms becoming extreme during certain parts of your monthly cycle. You never actually have to say it out loud, just say it's anemia, and hand her the note. It'll explain why you don't just miss classes, but miss multiple ones every month.
posted by Tooty McTootsalot at 11:09 AM on November 15, 2010

Your professor should not have snarked, but yes, you should explain the situation with a doctor's note. (If your school has an attendance policy, like mine does, then you'll definitely want to explain the situation--we can automatically fail students who miss a certain number of classes.)
posted by thomas j wise at 11:14 AM on November 15, 2010

I am a person with chronic illness, and I have been a college professor. Getting a doctor's note is the right thing to do, and what is in the doctor's note will be up to the doctor. It is unlikely that the note will say anything but "Ms. X is currently being seen by me for medical problems which will occasionally result in her missing class."

I'm a bit confused by your priorities--you seem not to have a problem with the professor thinking you're a shirker, but you are terrified that she will know you have complications with your menses? That doesn't make sense when you think about it, does it? I understand that there is a big culture of shame around the human reproductive processes, but really your professor will not judge you for having anemia.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:16 AM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

What can i tell the professor that they don't think I'm lying but also don't need to know all the details?

"Here is a note from my doctor explaining that I will have semi-regular absences due to some confidential health issues. What is the best way for me to obtain the material covered in those sessions and make up for the classes I will, unfortunately, have to miss?"
posted by jacquilynne at 11:21 AM on November 15, 2010 [7 favorites]

Rather than a doctor's note addressed to the professor, go talk to the school's office of disability accomodations. Ask them what documentation you need to provide to *them*, and then how they can intercede for you with the professor without having to reveal any personal, medical information to the professor.

Your prof does not have a right to know your medical details, not any of them. The prof only needs to know that you do have *A* valid medical reason.
posted by galadriel at 11:24 AM on November 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I really, really like jacquilynne's suggestion. If I had gotten that from a student whom I had snarked for frequent absences, I would have spent the rest of the semester falling over myself to be kind and generous to them.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:24 AM on November 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

galadriel's suggestion is awesome, too, assuming the school has an effective office for disability accommodations--more than one school I worked for/taught at did not.
posted by Sidhedevil at 11:25 AM on November 15, 2010

Get a note from the doctor. You don't have to go in to details. I'm sure the prof won't question you since medical details are private and on a need to know basis.
posted by WizKid at 11:26 AM on November 15, 2010

I'd recommend getting the doctor's note, but also suggest working with your doctors for a longer term solution. This is a fairly significant number of absences over the course of a semester, and given that you're only a freshman, missing 8-10 classes (of several courses) each term is really going to take a toll, which will lead to more stress and exhaustion.
posted by questionsandanchors at 11:26 AM on November 15, 2010

Yeah, your doctor doesn't have to give any medical details, just say that you were unable to make it to class on the applicable dates. If it's an ongoing thing the Dr could mention that too, or you might need a note every time. If your school has a medical centre they'll probably know either what's required or who to talk to to find out. I got a one year extension on my entire degree for a much more serious problem (depression) and the note from the doctor didn't give any details about what was wrong with me, just that I had a problem, what the effects of the problem were (not being able to work etc), and that I was in treatment for it.

Definitely don't get into it with your professor. Not because of the menses part, but because everyone thinks anaemia is easily fixed and you're really likely to get unwanted advice pushed on you (see this thread already). But anaemia isn't always a simple thing regardless of what everyone thinks, it can often take a long time to get better even with effective treatment, and you may have any or all kinds of complications that we don't know about (and don't need to know about). So any medical advice from anyone except the Dr treating you is totally inappropriate. Spare yourself the hassle. You're seeing a doctor and (presumably) being treated, all the professor needs to know is that you have a real medical problem that will affect your performance in specific ways.

I hope you and your doctor can sort this out, chronic anaemia sucks.
posted by shelleycat at 11:35 AM on November 15, 2010

(the misguided advice has now been removed so ignore that bit of my previous comment, the advice that remains is great!)
posted by shelleycat at 11:36 AM on November 15, 2010

Nthing the suggestion about the doctor's note. In college, I suffered from debilitating pain due to endometriosis; I know what its like to want to be descrete about the cause of your absence. But in those situations when I felt backed into a corner, I always felt it was better to tell someone what was going on, rather than look flaky or disconnected from classwork. I found most people to be very understanding, and many would often share with me that they had a sister/friend/daughter who had a similar struggle.
posted by backwards compatible at 11:49 AM on November 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

As a follow-up, I don't mean that to be insensitive at all to the seriousness of your affliction or to sound flip about longer term solutions. I mean instead to express concern for you based on the fact that the difficulty of your courses and their demands is only likely to increase as you get further into your college career, which could complicate your health issues even more.
posted by questionsandanchors at 11:50 AM on November 15, 2010

There is nothing inappropriate about stating that something is private and you're not willing to discuss details. "I have a minor medical issue with anemia that sometimes leaves me too exhausted to leave the house for a day or two at a time." Any follow-up questions can be responded to with "it's not really something I'm comfortable discussing beyond that" and "I will be glad to get a doctor's note to that effect."

jacquilynne's suggestion is, as others have said, excellent and is nicely pro-active. It might be a good first-day approach for you in future classes. If you school has an office of disability services you might ask them if they have some way to cope with this - it's possible they'll put your name on file and you can simply tell profs "I have a medical issue that sometimes causes me to have absences; a doctor's note is on file with ODS if you need verification." The student clinic is another option.

(The below assumed you're in a uni in the US)

The advantage of such an approach is that you keep your medical details confined to a branch of the school that's familiar with HIPAA restrictions on information privacy. While you're protected to differing degrees by FERPA (depending on whether or not you're at a public university) the reality is that FERPA is pretty toothless - it was decided long ago that there's no private right to sue under FERPA protections. The most you can do is complain to the DoE and there may be some financial consequences for the institution as a whole.

HIPAA, on the other hand, is more toothy and the more appropriate guiding law for medical info like this. But professors tend to live in fear of FERPA and aren't necessarily really well-educated about HIPAA. So they'll put notes in their files about you, if they keep them, which might be shared with other folks in the office or departments. That's completely kosher under FERPA's legitimate academic purpose guidelines but possibly not so under HIPAA.

So if you can give more details to the better-educated office and restrict what you tell profs, better.

Feel free to mefi mail me if you want more info; I should have my old FERPA training docs and links here if you're interested.
posted by phearlez at 12:00 PM on November 15, 2010

Nthing the suggestions to disclose *A* medical condition. It's none of their business what it is. Look up your school's policies on attendance and absenteeism, as long as you're not breaking any of those rules and your marks are up, there isn't really anything they can say about it. But to get back into your profs good graces (no point risking prejudice) I'd write them a professional and polite email describing the likelihood of regular absences and how regrettable, yet unavoidable it will be.
I know you didn't ask about treatment or anything, but being a college student with anemia, I know the how hard it can be and I have to say remember your spinach, steak, and supplements!
posted by Carlotta Bananas at 12:14 PM on November 15, 2010

Go with the doctor's note now, because your prof is already ticked and less likely to be sympathetic to you at this point. In future, you need to preemptively address this with your professors, either directly or through your school's disability office. Profs are generally much more understanding of absences, frivolous or serious, if you notify them in advance and work with them to make arrangements. If you're missing a bunch if classes with no notice at all, they will assume based on generalities, and generally excessive absences by freshmen is grounded in not taking school seriously.
posted by asciident at 12:19 PM on November 15, 2010

Doctor's notes. Now and when you have a job in the future, assuming this doesn't go away (it hasn't, for me.) Take it to your professor at the first available opportunity. This many absences, you have to be proactive about it. Don't discuss your diagnosis with your professor (or, in the future, your direct supervisor.) This is what student services and human resources departments are built for.

My mom's an instructor at a junior college, and a generic "so-and-so will have to miss X days per Y time period" note on appropriate stationary is fine for her. She would rather not know about your anemia, just your necessary accomodations.

Your school might even have a suggested form to fill out at their disability services website, depending on how big and/or formal the administration is.
posted by SMPA at 4:28 PM on November 15, 2010

I had your exact problem a few years ago. Mine wasn't chronic-- more of a six-month, full-body freakout-- but I too was reluctant to tell my professors the real deal. I missed classes frequently and then got so depressed I started skipping.

An ambiguous doctor's note won't cut it at this point. They're too easy to get. You need your problem spelled out on medical-grade letterhead. Then suck up your embarrassment and tell your prof the truth. If she's anything like mine she'll trip over herself apologizing.

I feel for you, good luck.
posted by fritillary at 4:42 PM on November 15, 2010

Seconding a private email to your prof explaining your situation. A friend of mine, who was in my English class in university, was recovering from ovarian cancer. she had to go to the washroom at least once during our hour and a half long class. every class, she'd get a coffee or some water, and halfway through she had to use the ladies'. perfectly understandable! but one day the prof just snapped at her "Do you have to go to the bathroom EVERY CLASS??". my friend was mortified, sat down. she later sent a private email explaining her situation to the professor (who did not reply, but i noticed never said anything about a student leaving the room to use the washroom ever again).

say something prudent and private. chances are they'll be embarassed they insinuated your very real medical issue was something to be petty about.
posted by custard heart at 9:17 PM on November 15, 2010

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