This piece is written by Meghan Gabel, student at Boston University and an intern in the Joslin Communications department.
From the beginning of my freshman year, I knew that I wanted to study abroad. Fast-forward two years later and my dreams had become a reality as I made arrangements to spend the fall of 2015 studying in London. I immediately felt excitement, followed quickly by fear. Studying abroad in itself is daunting, but studying abroad with diabetes is even more terrifying.
Countless questions began running through my mind: how would I count carbs for foreign foods? How would I travel with all my supplies? Would I need to find doctor there in case of emergencies? Despite all my fears, by making the right preparations, studying abroad turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life. Here are six things I learned from studying abroad with diabetes that I wish I had known beforehand:
Always Over pack
When it comes to traveling with diabetes, there’s no such thing as over packing. Even if I was only traveling for a few days at a time, I would pack enough supplies as if I were going for a week. Make yourself a checklist, and go through it while packing to ensure that you have multiple supplies and plenty of snacks and low treatment. My bags were always stocked with glucose tabs and granola bars, and I would even keep honey packets in my shoes, just in case.
Cold Is Key
Before leaving for London, I spoke with my insurance company and to make sure I could obtain enough supplies to cover for four months’ time. Once that was approved, the next step was figuring out how to keep those supplies, primarily insulin, cold for the next few months. TSA will allow you to carry cold packs on your flight as long as they are frozen. In my carry-on bag, I stored a cooler that carried all my insulin. Then I reached out to the program that I was studying abroad to acquire mini-fridge in my room to keep the insulin cold, rather than putting it in the communal fridges. Whether you are living in an apartment, dorm, or home stay, ask your program directors about options to keep your medication close to you, and cold.
Break Down Cultural Barriers
Another important thing to consider while studying abroad is the language and cultural barriers. When traveling to countries where English is not primarily spoken, make sure you know how to say key words such as “sugar” or “juice” in case of emergencies. Also, always wear a medical ID bracelet and carry a medical alert card in your wallet.
Keep Your Bags Close and Your Supplies Closer
When flying from country to country, it’s important to keep your supplies in a carry-on bag rather than a checked bag. I had to learn the hard way that many airlines outside the U.S. have smaller carry-on bag dimension requirements, so make sure you get a bag that is small enough to fit on the plane, but can still hold all of your supplies. When going through security, always carry a letter from your doctor explaining why you are carrying syringes and medications.
Use the Buddy System
No matter how far you are away from home, when you are in a foreign country, make sure there is someone on your trip who knows and understands what to do in case of a diabetes emergency. Another useful tip is to have a friend carry some low treatments or extra diabetes supplies in case your own bag gets stolen or lost.
Roll With the Punches
The biggest take-away I learned from abroad is that at some point, something can and will go wrong. No matter how much you prepare, you will experience highs and lows while abroad. At some point I learned to accept this and cut myself some slack. Your routine will change as foreign foods are tricky to tackle and you will find yourself walking a lot more than usual. It’s okay to not know exactly how many carbs are in that gelato from Rome, or that pretzel that was the size of my face from Oktoberfest. It’s okay to go low from walking the steps up to top of the Eiffel Tower. And it’s okay if things don’t go always according to plan – just roll with the punches and accept that some things are out of your control.
Studying abroad with diabetes can be scary, but it’s not impossible if you adequately prepare beforehand by meeting with your diabetes care team. It’s important to alert your doctors before embarking on a big trip. I saw both my endocrinologist and certified diabetes educator before leaving. They helped me make travel and emergency plans and even provided me with tip on finding apps to count carbs on my phone. Living on your own in a foreign country with diabetes might be a nerve-wracking thought, but with the right amount of preparation and planning, it can be an unforgettable experience and a once in a lifetime opportunity.