Balancing wellness and wanderlust

by Christina Bartson / Beacon Staff • October 8, 2014

I was trying to get to Amsterdam’s Dam Square when the backs of my knees weakened and I sunk to the nearest bench, unable to stand.

It was 2:14 p.m. and I was supposed to be at the city’s center at 2:30 p.m. I was far away—a wrong turn had landed me near the Rijksmuseum. I shouldn’t have gotten lost. I had walked this route twice before.

I unfolded a transit map and held it to my face, but the multicolored tram lines blurred together, making a messy tangle of strings on the page. I then realized why I was so disoriented: my blood sugar was low.

My hands shook and my heart thumped in my chest, beating like a heavy bass in a dark club. I pulled my blood glucose meter from my bag, pricked my finger, and placed a drop of blood on the test strip. I waited a few seconds, and the screen flashed 48mg/dL. I’m meant to be around 90-150. I was very low.

I got out a Ziploc baggie of dried cherries and ate a handful. In 15 minutes my blood glucose would be up and I could walk again, see clearly, and make my way to the Dam.

This is not an unusual event. I have Type 1 diabetes, a lifelong disease where my pancreas stopped producing insulin, the hormone that regulates blood glucose levels. Since I was diagnosed at age 11, I do what my pancreas can’t: treat the disease by administering insulin with syringes, test my blood sugar about 10 times a day, and see my endocrinologist every three months.

Technically, I am a disabled traveller, though I’ve never thought of myself as a person with a disability—perhaps because “disability” can have a negative connotation and I don’t feel my diagnosis has affected my life negatively. But I have been challenged.

There’s no instruction booklet for how to balance responsibility with your health and wanderlust. Maintaining my health requires stability and control, but while travelling, there’s an inherent desire to be impulsive and free. For a perspective seldom illuminated, here’s some insight on the trials of studying abroad as a Type 1 diabetic.

Case closed

Packing for a semester in the Netherlands was a weeklong procedure involving charts and Enya on replay. But along with sweaters, I had to pack three months of medical supplies that I can’t get in a foreign country, and it’s illegal to mail some prescription medicine internationally.

In total my supplies took up two-thirds of my carry-on. Sweaters were sacrificed. Also, the cost of supplies adds up and this upfront expense had to be budgeted into my family’s life.

Emotional baggage

I get searched nearly every time I go through airport security. For some reason, a gallon-sized bag full of syringes is a big red flag.

On my way from Boston to Amsterdam, both my bags were cracked open. But I now know the drill—I smile and give my little speech: “I’m a Type 1 diabetic and I’m travelling with medical supplies. I have a doctor’s letter. Would you like to see it?”

That awkward moment when

It’s always a tad uncomfortable when you whip out a syringe on an airplane and just know the stranger beside you is probably thinking you do drugs.

Finding salvation in stroopwafel

Everyone gets jet-lagged and it always sucks, but Type 1 diabetics deal with something I’ll call insulin-lag.

 I take two types of insulin: Novolog, in small doses for meals, and Lantus, taken once a day to try to keep my blood sugar stable. I take my Lantus at 10:30 p.m. every evening, so a six-hour time change throws a bit of a wrench in my day.

Insulin-lag hit hard the first week—I woke with low blood sugar every night. On the bright side, I found out that stroopwafel, a Dutch cookie, is excellent for correcting lows.

Pick a pocket, any pocket

There are few travel fears that trump pickpocketing. I worry about it for all the same reasons most people do—being stranded in a foreign country without money, identification, or lipstick—but I also worry about my bag with medical supplies being stolen. I carry it with me everywhere I go—it is my literal lifeline. If my purse gets taken and I can’t immediately replace my supplies, it’s bad news.

The high life

At Kasteel Well, you get tossed into a new crowd for a semester. It used to be difficult for me to share that I had Type 1 diabetes with people I just met. I’d be anxious about checking my blood sugar or giving myself shots—sometimes I’d even skip insulin doses. But I’ve realized there’s no need to feel self-conscious. I like sharing this fact about me. It’s a part of who I am and it’s no big deal.