Studying abroad is a challenge. It takes bravery, confidence, and a willingness to be thrown off balance and feel that you can recover and grow. Yet, as daunting as setting up shop in a foreign country can be, it’s also an enriching and life-altering experience. So when I was presented the opportunity to live in the Netherlands for a semester, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t want to miss out because I happen to carry a little extra challenge with me—type 1 diabetes.
I’m going to tell you what it’s like to travel and live abroad as a type 1 diabetic.
First things first: Packing
I had to pack for three months of living in the Netherlands. I hate packing en general (I’m bad at making decisions involving my sweaters and dresses), but fitting all my things into one carry-on sized suitcase, one checked bag, and a backpack was a weeklong procedure involving tree-charts and Enya playing in the background.
And I had to pack all of my medical supplies, too—enough for September, October, November, and some of December.
Acquiring three months worth of medical supplies in advance is a pain in the ass. And sacrificing sweaters to pack syringes is a particularly massive ass-pain.
I had to transport my supplies with me because I can’t get them in a different country, and it’s illegal to mail some prescription medical supplies internationally.
In the days leading up to my departure, I spent hours on the phone—calling my endocrinologist’s office, my insurance company, and my pharmacy to coordinate getting prescriptions filled for triple the amount of supplies I’m typically given at the end of a month.
In total, I took 6 vials of insulin, three Frio cold packs to keep my insulin cool while I was travelling, about 450 syringes, roughly 600 test strips, one box of lancets, an extra blood glucose meter, extra batteries for the meter, and some dried fruit for when my blood sugar goes low.
All of this took up about two-thirds of my carry on suitcase.
Also, paying for three times the supplies at once is a little overwhelming. The cost of medical supplies really adds up. This had to be budgeted into my family’s life.
All packed, time to get on a big jet plane
But wait a second, got to do that airport security dance.
I get searched nearly every time I go through security. For some reason a gallon-sized Ziploc bag full of syringes waves a red flag.
On my way from Boston to Amsterdam, both of my bags were opened and my stuff was shuffled around inside. I know the drill. I accept it and give my little speech.
Yo security, I’m a type one diabetic and I’m traveling with all of my medical supplies. I have a doctor’s letter I carry with me, would you like to see it?
Usually they’re cool at this point and they let me carry on.
That awkward moment when you whip out a syringe on an airplane and the stranger next to you thinks you do drugs.
No further explanation necessary.
I’ve arrived in the Netherlands and I’m jet lagged
Yeah, jet lag sucks. Everyone goes through it and it always sucks. But type 1 diabetics deal with something I’m going to call insulin lag.
I take two different types of insulin—a fast acting insulin called Novolog to cover the carbohydrates I have at meals, and a larger dose of a slow-releasing insulin called Lantus that I take once a day to keep my blood sugar even (or that’s the intent). I take my Lantus at 10:30 p.m. every single night. Same time every night.
A six-hour time change throws a bit of a wrench in my day.
For the first week I was here, I woke up with low blood sugar every single night.
On the bright side, I discovered Stroopwafel (this cookie Dutch people are obsessed with) is excellent for correcting lows.
Deciphering nutrition facts in a different language is hard
I calculate my insulin doses for meals depending on the amount of carbohydrates I’m going to eat. Most of the time I can make an educated guess and be ok (I’m kind of like a walking encyclopedia of carb-counts). But sometimes I rely on the nutrition fact label to make sure I’m computing the proper amount of insulin to put into my body. When travelling to different countries and the labels are in languages you don’t know, figuring out doses is tough.
This is a universal fear. Having your purse or backpack stolen means being stranded in a foreign place without any money, any identification, and any lipstick. Are there any other “Oh F*ck” travel-fears that trump this one? Probably not many.
I worry about getting pick-pocketed for all the same reasons most people do—cash money, passport, photos of my dog in my wallet—but in addition to these, I also worry about my medical supplies being stolen.
Everywhere I go I carry a bag containing my meter, insulin, syringes, test strips, glucose tablets, and glucagon (for emergency lows). This little pouch is my lifeline. Literally.
If my lifeline gets stolen and I can’t immediately replace my supplies, it’s bad news.
But I don’t want to scare anyone out of travelling, because there are also some really cool things that outweigh the bad things
I can take things into museums with me
I always have to have my medical supplies with me, so I’m allowed to keep my purse on me when I go to museums. Also, if you’re a friend of mine, I’ll even let you put some of your things into my bag so you can stealthily take photos in museums, too.
I can eat places other people can’t
Yeah, it’s great.
I get to share something about myself with all the new people I meet
It used to be really difficult for me to share my type 1 diabetes with people I just met. Checking my blood sugar or taking a shot in front of new people made me anxious, so much sometimes that I would skip insulin doses. I used to rather let my blood sugar go really high and hurt my health than explain the disease to fresh faces. I got over that, though.
Sharing my type 1 diabetes with new people is fun. I’ve found people are usually curious and I genuinely enjoy answering their questions. I’ve come to be open about what having this chronic disease means and how I take care of myself. It’s just a part of who I am and it’s no big deal.
It’s also no big deal to study abroad as a type 1 diabetic. I’m here and I’m doing it. I’ve cleared a lot of hurdles and I have more funny stories to tell.
And anyways, in the Netherlands it’s not that unusual to hear someone say, “I’m high again.”