Diabetes tends to be a source of background noise in my life. I live with it day to day, paying just enough attention to my blood sugars and insulin to keep me relatively healthy, without driving me completely insane. So, when I first decided I was going to go abroad, I didn’t think twice about diabetes. I traveled to Geneva, Switzerland through a Boston University Internship Program focusing in Public Health for just short of four months during the Fall of 2014. This was my first time leaving the U.S., besides a short trip to Niagara Falls in 5th grade; thus, I was utterly clueless about traveling to Europe, and even more clueless about traveling with diabetes.
The summer before my departure, I had a major reality check. As my Mom began to have daily conversations with our insurance company in June to figure out all of the pump supplies I would need to bring with me, I thought- How many infusion sets, test strips, lancets, glucometers, and other diabetes supplies am I going to bring with me? How was I going to transport all of these supplies on the plane with me? Where was I going to keep this arsenal of diabetes supplies in my room? No one else from my school was going on my program with me- who was going to know what to do if I got sick? I began by contacting my abroad program to request disability accommodations so that I might have a small refrigerator in my room to keep my insulin separate from the community fridges on my floor. I submitted my request through the Office of Disability Services at BU in the United States, and they opened lines of communication with my program specific staff. This process went smoothly. My Mom also called the airline on which I would be traveling to have my additional baggage carrying my diabetes supplies approved as Medical Baggage. I had my nurse practitioner write a letter to document that I had diabetes, and made copies of every prescription item I would be carrying with me on the plane.
I ended up checking three large rolling suitcases, carrying on 2 duffel bags and a cooler—filled with diabetes supplies including an extra glucose meter and a loaner pump—and a backpack filled with non-diabetes related travel materials, plus a binder with all my documentation. Needless to say, going through security alone at JFK airport in New York City was stressful. I had no problems with the TSA and my diabetes supplies—security did not protest when I asked them to hand check my pump and CGM—but the physical volume of bags was a tad overwhelming.
Prior to my departure for Switzerland I asked Tina, CDN’s CEO and Founder, whether she had any diabetes related connections in Switzerland. Tina was able to put me in touch with someone from Lilly Diabetes, who gave me the names of two individuals connected to the diabetes community in Switzerland. CDN also connected me with a Swiss Medical student named Angela who was studying in Fribourg, about an hour from Geneva. Angela and I were able to meet up twice, and have kept in touch via social media since then. The first time we met we immediately began discussing which medical devices we used, and how living with diabetes “works” in the U.S. versus Switzerland and vice versa. This cultural exchange was a transformative experience for me, and I feel so fortunate to have gained a dia-bestie during my time abroad. Many thanks to Tina and CDN for supporting me in this way during my time in Europe, and for helping me feel part of the international diabetes community.
While in Switzerland I kept busy taking classes, working at Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance, traveling, navigating (getting lost) on public transportation, pretending I knew how to speak French, and making cheese my primary food group. I traveled to Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Denmark, and visited various cities and towns throughout Switzerland. Whenever I traveled I carried my binder full of documentation and enough diabetes supplies for two times the length of each trip. With the right combination of luck and preparedness, I avoided any significant diabetes disasters—there were other non-diabetes related disasters—while traveling, and became a pro at explaining with hand motions to European Airport security officers (who showed less concern than you might think) that my pump and CGM were not to pass through any scanners.
During my time abroad, diabetes continued to be a source of background noise in my life. Some of the valuable lessons I learned are as follows: 1. Be more prepared than you thought you needed to be for any situation or circumstance that comes your way- always carry doctor’s notes and always bring extra supplies. 2. Wear a Medical ID bracelet. I made my new friends and professors aware that I had diabetes, but there were plenty of times I was quite literally “flying solo.” For my personal safety and for everyone else’s peace of mind, my medical ID bracelet did not leave my wrist while I was abroad. 3. Don’t sweat the small stuff. This is funny for me to say because I often do “sweat the small stuff.” Nevertheless, while I was abroad I began to learn to accept that a lot of things are out of my control, including those annoying low blood sugars that occur when you should have been high because of the gigantic cup of gelato you ate an hour ago.
All you can do is prepare for what you can, roll with the punches, and try not to let the background noise drown out the sound of that really catchy song they play every 15 minutes in the tents at Oktoberfest.