If your type one diabetes is the only thing keeping you from hopping on a plane to go see the world, please let me be the one to tell you that you CAN do this. The world is such a big, diverse, beautiful place and getting an opportunity to see more of it is something I recommend everyone take. I remember wanting to go to different countries and see the corners of the earth from the time I was a small girl. When I was starting my senior year of high school, I started looking for service trips to take during the summer before I left for college. I was excited and felt my horizons broadening until I started thinking about handling my diabetes management in a developing country. I let the fear of the unknown keep me rooted in US soil and I tried to tell myself that I didn’t really want to travel that badly anyway. A few years passed by and I couldn’t get rid of the piece of me that ached to see new places and experience new cultures. Eventually, my sophomore year of college, I caved and signed up for a five-week service trip to Guatemala.
As I began planning to take myself and my diabetes to one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere, I was still filled with nerves about how things would go. However, being prepared is the best thing you can do to make sure that you have a fun, safe, healthy, enjoyable and LIFE CHANGING trip. I made sure that I talked to my endocrinologist about my trip and I got a letter about my medical supplies from her. I went and saw my family doctor and got all the necessary vaccinations, anti-malaria pills and medicine to keep with me in case I got a parasite (don’t worry, I didn’t get one). I purchased a FRIO pack and made sure to bring a lot of extra pump sites, batteries, strips, CGMs, an extra transmitter and shots just in case. I brought four huge containers of glucose tabs and some boxes of granola bars and boarded the plane to leave the country for five weeks.
My time in Guatemala was better than anything I could have imagined. Some days I was surrounded by scenery so beautiful I felt like someone should pinch me and other days I went to bed in a bed covered in fresh rat poop but EVERYDAY I felt myself growing and learning new things about myself. One of the biggest takeaways from this trip was that my diabetes doesn’t need to tether me to any sort of lifestyle, career type or geographical location. Sure, there were times where the heat gave me difficult lows and nights where all the corn tortillas left me high all night long, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it. The truth is, I manage my diabetes and I just have to think on my feet and adjust as I go. If you can manage your diabetes in America, you can manage it wherever you go.
One thing I had not expected before going to Guatemala was how the local Guatemalans would respond to my medical equipment. Since Guatemala is still a developing country, people who live with diabetes there do not wear pumps or CGMs. When I wore my Dexcom on my arm I got a lot of questions, a lot of stares and a lot of people asking to touch it. I enjoyed wearing my devices on my arms still because it allowed me to have a conversation about my diabetes and allowed me to meet a lot of Guatemalans living with type two diabetes. One evening I even got to test a man’s blood sugar, which was 180, and I recommended he go see a doctor.
If I could go back and have a talk with myself before I left for Guatemala, I would tell myself to brush up on Spanish vocabulary I might need to help explain my diabetes. I would want to learn words like glucose, blood sugar, type one diabetes, insulin, etc. and key phrases such as “I need food please” or “Where is the closest hospital”. I would also tell myself to work with my doctors to set up a comfortable target for the trip. I like to run myself a little bit higher when I travel to a new place so perhaps I could have adjusted my blood sugar target to be 140 instead of 80-120. Lastly, I would tell myself that I am strong and capable of handling my diabetes overseas.
My five weeks in Guatemala were life changing. I now want to see more of the world. I want to work in different clinics and hear different people’s stories. I want to gain new experiences and see new places. I am already planning for my next adventure and all I can say to the T1D reading this is that you should feel empowered to go and see the world, to tell your story and to never let diabetes hold you back. Travel on, sweet type one friend.