Living Abroad With Type 1 Diabetes

Kaki Bennett, Student at Emory University School of Medicine

I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes when I was four. At first, I was scared and confused. When I was eight years old, however, I attended Camp Kudzu, a camp for children with type 1 diabetes in Georgia. After that experience, I gained a sense of independence that turned into wanderlust to travel and see the world. To date, I have traveled extensively and have lived abroad twice: in Tours, France during the spring of 2013 and in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg during the 2015-2016 academic year on a Fulbright Research Grant given by the US Department of State.

During my Fulbright year, I worked at the Luxembourg Institute of Health on a project to develop liquid biopsies for lung cancer patients. Lab work is extremely dynamic, and no day is ever the same. Some days I conducted experiments; other days I caught up on scientific literature; other days I had the opportunity to attend workshops on statistics or other lectures given by experts in the field. In addition to my lab work, I had many opportunities to step out of my academic and cultural comfort zone. I attended the EU-NATO Seminar, where we visited the institutions of the European Union and NATO and engaged in conversations with European and American leaders on current events, and several Fulbright sponsored events at the US Embassies in Belgium and Luxembourg. During my down time, I sang in the University of Luxembourg’s choir and hiked throughout the country. For more information on the Fulbright Student program, click here:

For anyone with diabetes who is interested in traveling or living abroad, here are five tips for planning before you leave and how to adjust when you arrive. 

  1. Before you leave, calculate how many supplies you will need while you will be gone. Depending on how long you are abroad, it may be easier to establish care where you will be living and order supplies there. Some insurance companies need time to process a request for more supplies than you would normally be given (e.g. a six-month supply of insulin versus your normal three-month supply). Make sure to start this process 2-3 months before you depart. Many countries don’t allow medication to be shipped to you, so keep that in mind when making your plans.
  2. Talk to your classmates, coworkers, or roommates and make sure they know what to do in an emergency. Explain in simple terms what type 1 diabetes is and how to treat it. If there is an emergency, make sure people know that medics need to be informed that you have type 1 diabetes. On that note, purchase a medical alert before leaving. Also, if you are sharing a kitchen with other people, let them know that your insulin will need to be in the refrigerator and to treat it with care. There is nothing worse than losing insulin because a milk carton knocked it over onto the tile floor!
  3. In my experience, it is easier (and cheaper) to take public transportation while abroad than to drive. If that is the case, you will likely be farther away from home than you normally would be, so you will need backup supplies that you might not normally need. I always carry insulin, glucagon, and anti-nausea medication in case of an emergency in addition to glucose tablets, granola bars, and money to purchase a Coke if necessary. Never think that having diabetes means that you can’t participate in fun events or excursions; living with diabetes just means that you have to plan a bit more than usual. When I lived abroad, I traveled, climbed some beautiful mountains, and had experiences that I will treasure for a lifetime. To ensure that you are always prepared, make a list of everything you will need to take with you anytime you travel or go on an excursion. I have a copy of this list on my desktop and refer to it anytime I travel. That way I don’t have to worry about forgetting anything.
  4. Find a doctor in the country where you will be living. In case you have a problem, a doctor will be able to help you get the care and the supplies you need. Also, always know what the emergency number is where you are and find the closest hospital or clinic to where you are living.
  5. This one applies to everyone going abroad: enjoy your experience! Eat the local food, learn a new language, interact with new people, and step out of your comfort zone.