Invisible illness shouldn’t lead to sub-par treatment

Finding the zebras among the horses

Image by: Herbert Wang
Shannon believes the healthcare system often neglects young people.

The healthcare system faced extreme pressures that caused fatigue and slowed service provision at the peak of COVID-19—but what’s the excuse now? 

Those in the medical industry are overworked, overstretched, and therefore, deprioritizing seemingly non-critical cases of undeserving youth with invisible illnesses. If you’ve persistently pleaded your symptoms to practitioners and have been left unsatisfied by diagnoses, treatment, or referrals, you’re not alone. 

Your health is your problem and your responsibility, so advocating for thorough services can be the difference between a horse and a zebra.

Non-specialized medical practitioners are guided by probability when it comes to diagnosing patients. When they hear hoofbeats, they’re taught to recognize horses, not zebras. This means they’re on the lookout for common illnesses instead of exploring potential rarities, often to the detriment of young people who present as physically healthy but are needing care.

In my recent experience with Student Wellness Services (SWS), I learned persistent medical dismissal doesn’t guarantee your case is not a zebra, and my zebra is heart disease. 

SWS told me my dizziness, fatigue, and irregular heartbeats were a simple case of vertigo. After returning a few weeks later once the ‘vertigo’ was supposed to have passed, I reminded the doctor of my history of being born with heart disease and having had two surgeries. The doctor pulled out a stethoscope, listened my heartbeat, and assured me everyone has irregular beats before sending me on my way.

Underappreciation for students’ invisible illnesses at SWS is a common theme among my close friends. I can count on two hands the number of unsatisfactory appointments concerning everything from mental to sexual health that left my peers feeling dismissed. 

In many cases, the lengthy phone waits and appointments set eons in advance all lead up to a meeting with an uninvested stranger who dedicates a whole five-minute consultation to judging the severity of your experience.

Why am I always unsatisfied with non-emergency doctor appointments? Is my anxiety only at ease after a comprehensive evaluation? Is it because I’ve seen this doctor six times and they say “nice to meet you” every time? Or is it because hours of my self-diagnosing preliminary research are dismissed when the doctor spends two minutes asking me questions to ultimately arrive at a different diagnosis?

Going to SWS is the first time many students receive care outside their family doctor. It’s often the first experience students have interacting with the healthcare system independently. The unfortunate hardships many students face with SWS teach us the need for self-advocacy, as unsatisfactory healthcare experiences force us to learn how to navigate a healthcare system that often feels as if it’s designed against us. 

Invisible conditions among youth continue to be under-diagnosed, even outside youth-centred spaces like Queen’s. The service-providing issues at SWS are only a microcosm of the deteriorating Canadian healthcare system. 

Because serious illnesses are more common among middle-aged and older adults, the under-evaluation of the concerns of young adults teaches patients that tireless persistence is the only way to receive proper treatment. It’s stressful needing to advocate for your symptoms and conduct your own research—putting the burden on patients doesn’t alleviate any of the fear or frustration which accompany the diagnosis of a serious illness.

As Canada’s population ages and increased medical services are dedicated to serving the elderly, medical services across the country must actively work to ensure youth health is not set aside.

There is no shortage of prospective medical practitioners. Ask any Health Science or Life Science student at Queen’s and they will remind you of the ultra-limited spots available in medical school. Increasing the number of trained personnel available to help patients will ensure practitioners can thoroughly care for the population, not just the easily-identifiable urgent cases. 

Canada’s demographic is very different now compared to when the government introduced universal healthcare five decades ago. Federal funding is addressing the aging demographic but not patients whose conditions require more investigation. They should not have to sacrifice receiving thorough care due to a lack of funding.

Dealing with an invisible illness can be a terrifying experience. Not receiving the support to know if you are getting worse, better, or running in circles is incredibly unsettling. 

To those practitioners who believe youth’s medical concerns and refer their patients to specialists: you have my deep appreciation. We need more doctors like you who are dedicated to finding the zebras among the horses. 


Shannon is a fourth-year global development and environmental studies student. 


healthcare system, invisible illness, Student Wellness Services

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