Six Tips Every Diabetic Should Read Before Studying Abroad

I chalked up the fact that I couldn’t fall asleep to three things: 1. I can never sleep on planes. 2. The old Argentine man to my right was hogging the armrest, and 3. I was really nervous. The entire flight to 2016-09-25-16-28-03Buenos Aires, my mind oscillated between excitement for the upcoming chapter of my life and a feeling of uneasiness. That anxiety was mainly due to the uncertainty I had about handling my type 1 diabetes in a foreign country. What if Customs doesn’t let me enter with a six-month supply of insulin and needles? Would I have to explain myself in Spanish? What if I lose my supplies?

Not knowing another type-1 diabetic who had studied abroad, I dealt with this uncertainty and stress for much of the period leading up to — and at times during— my study abroad experience. For that reason, I thought it might be helpful to share 6 tips that I wish somebody had given me before I embarked on this (incredibly rewarding) journey.

Before the plane:

  1. Get things squared away with the supplies you will be bringing: This is probably the most tedious of the tips I’m going to share, but it may also be the most important. It is plausible that the brands of insulin you inject, and the blood glucose meter, syringes, etc. you use aren’t available in the country in which you’re studying. Consequently, it’s often easier to simply bring all of your supplies with you on the plane. To do this, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your endocrinologist; with whom you can sit down, decide how much of each medicine to bring, and call in a prescription to obtain said amount of supplies at your pharmacy. This will require a fair bit of coordination with your insurance company, doctor, and pharmacy, so starting this process sooner rather than later will definitely save you some stress down the road.

However, in the event that the country you’re studying in doesn’t allow you to enter with a large supply of diabetes medications, I’d suggest that you arrange an appointment with a local doctor shortly after your arrival so that you can get your prescriptions filled locally.

  1. Learn some relevant vocabulary: If you’re studying in a country that speaks a language not native to you, it’s not a bad idea to learn some vocabulary associated with diabetes. Whether you need to explain what your suitcase contains to a security officer or you’re talking about diabetes with a local, knowing the words for “blood sugar,” “inject,” “needle,” etc., will make those conversations a lot smoother. Personally, simply knowing how to say “me inyecto con insulina” (“I inject myself with insulin”) and “mi sangre está baja” (“my blood is low”) really helped in explaining diabetes to my host family.

Traveling:

  1. Physically carry some of your supplies onto the plane: In addition to stuffing all your clothes and unnecessarily puffy jackets into that suitcase, you’re going to have to transport one or two semesters’ worth of diabetic supplies with you. My advice: bring all of your insulin in a cooler onto the plane as a carry-on, thus keeping your insulin refrigerated during the trip (non refrigerated insulin can expire after 30 days) and making sure it isn’t lost by the airline. However, while it might be ideal to carry on all of your supplies so as to not lose any, the sheer volume of medication makes this very difficult. I suggest carrying on your insulin and about a month’s worth of other diabetic supplies to assure that, in the event that the airline loses your checked baggage, you can function in your new country while the airline searches for your bag.
  2. Be prepared for airport security: So, you’re carrying one or two semesters worth of diabetes supplies: needles, insulin, more needles— understandably, it can look pretty sketchy to transportation security agents who are trained to search for drugs. For this reason, I recommend that you carry a signed copy of a doctor’s note (testifying to the fact that you have diabetes and require diabetic medications) and that you keep the prescription labels on your supplies. This assured that my experience through Argentine customs went smoothly, but it’s important to research the country you’re studying in ahead of time to learn whether or not they will permit you to bring all of your diabetes medications. Understandably, some of these security questions may be difficult to track down on the internet, so I recommend calling your study abroad country’s embassy to be sure you’re receiving accurate and up-to-date information.

Settling in:

  1. Educate your host family: By this, I mean be clear with your host family about your practical needs as a diabetic. Of course, you’ll answer typical questions like “So what does that insulin stuff do?” and “Does that hurt when you prick your finger?”, but it’s more important that your host family know what they need to do to accommodate you. For example, your host family should know where to locate and how to use your Glucagon Injection Kit in case you suffer a hypoglycemic seizure (for non-diabetic readers: glucagon is used to raise blood glucose to a normal level when a diabetic is dangerously low and unresponsive). Additionally, make sure you have adequate space in a refrigerator to store your insulin.
  1. Stay supplied: Between exploring the city to traveling within your host country, there are going to be plenty of times where your blood sugar goes low or goes high. The key to staying safe in these situations is to preemptively check that you’re adequately supplied with food, juice, insulin and whatever else you need to safely travel.

Closing thoughts:

I really hope that the tips I’ve provided here help alleviate some of the concerns you might be feeling before leaving. When it comes to studying abroad and exploring the world, diabetes isn’t an obstacle— it’s merely an inconvenience. And given that my semester in Buenos Aires was a priceless and unforgettable chapter in my life, I’d say it’s an inconvenience certainly worth tolerating.

Chris Feely is a History student at Cornell University and attended the IFSA-Butler Argentine Universities Program in Buenos Aires during the Fall 2016 semester.

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