Studying abroad comes with a variety of thrilling new challenges: navigating a foreign city, getting by in the nation’s native tongue, experiencing different cultural cuisines and lifestyles—the list goes on! While managing diabetes on top of all these adaptations may seem like a daunting task, it can be done. Joslin Diabetes Center Nurse Practitioner Katherine Wentzell, MSN, PNP, asserts that all it takes is thorough planning ahead.
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Step One: Talk to your team
Wentzell contends that you should start discussing the possibility of studying abroad with your diabetes team during your freshman year or early sophomore year, if you plan on travelling your junior year. From here, your doctor can work with you to formulate a plan of action for managing diabetes overseas. “There are many, many, many places in the world where you can go study with diabetes; it just needs to be a conversation.” Wentzell says. She says your abroad selection has to be a place where you will have immediate access to first world medical care. The U.S. State Department provides information about certain countries’ healthcare systems. These sources are good places to start exploring your options.
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Step Two: Get Your Supplies
To figure out how you will get insulin abroad, talk to your insurance company. Depending on how long you intend to study abroad, you may need to get an override in order to get three months, six months, or even a year-long supply of insulin and other diabetes supplies.
From there, be cautious of transporting and storing the insulin. “Once insulin is kept at room temperature, it’s only good for thirty days,” warns Wentzell. In other words, the minute the insulin is opened or the vial/pen is kept at room temperature, it will only last for one month. Sometimes, families visit at some point during their stay. Wentzell cites this as the perfect opportunity to bring more supplies over.
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If you’re a pumper, bring an extra one in case anything happens to your original pump. Call your pump company to receive a “loaner” pump.
Bring copies of your prescriptions—better to have them prepared than have to explain in your non-native language what you need.
Step Three: Start Communicating
Whether you are living on a university campus, on your own, or with a host family, Wentzell advises, “Start that communication as early as you can.” You can find out about the health services available near your study abroad location from the study abroad advisor at your university.
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Also talk to your doctor about how to keep in touch with him or her while abroad. Email probably works best when dealing with time differences, but certain doctors may want you to communicate with them differently.
Step Four: Take Data
With all the new cultural dishes to try, you may have to get used to carb counting foods with different nutrition facts than the ones you are used to back home. Even food items that are among your go-to’s at home could be prepared differently, so be mindful while experimenting with the new cuisine.
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Once you have arrived at your destination, start checking your blood sugars frequently, so this new “data” can help you adjust your care for the new foods you are consuming. Wentzell suggests even bringing a simple food scale to help track the new foods.
In terms of staying active, look for opportunities around you to keep up your exercise routine. This is entirely dependent on where you go, so ask the director of your program or your study abroad advisor how people exercise while abroad at your host university—is there a gym nearby? Is walking their go-to mode of transportation for getting around the city?
Finally, wear a medical alert bracelet or necklace in the native language of the country you are in, just in case of an emergency.
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You Can Do This
Wentzell believes, “I think studying abroad is truly a great opportunity and I want young adults with diabetes to be able to experience that in the same way. It just requires planning. So you can do it, you can have this great time, you just have to plan.”
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Learn more about Joslin’s Pediatric, Adolescent and Young Adult Programs.