2010 was the year, October the month and I was 21 years old. I had just returned from a three week trip to Ireland with its haunting and mesmerizing lanscapes. My thirst for travelling was replaced by another thirst, not nearly as pleasant. It wouldn’t go away despite how much water I drank. Besides, I was exhausted. I must have recognized the warning signs somehow, since I immediately asked my dad to bring his glucose meter to the kitchen table – my father who was diagnosed with diabetes type 1 at the age of 17.
An innocent blood drip carried an inconvenient truth as the number 22,7 appeared on the screen. That’s how I found out I had too diabetes type 1, and it hit me like a bullet. Dreams crushed right before my eyes and I thought to myself the most horrible thought, “What if I will never be able to travel like I’m used too again”. It was the lack of freedom that caused my greatest fears.
2019 and nine years later I think back at this moment and smile. As it turned out my life would not change as dramatically as I was anxious about then. During these nine years I’ve studied a semester in Mexico, travelled like a nomad i Colombia and kept exploring cities in Europe. Having that said I can now proudly confirm that it is in fact possible to experience the world as a diabetic. But just as unreliable as commuting timetables can be in Guatemala, my friend diabetes can come with some obstacles. However not invincible ones. I would therefor like to share some of my learnings with future travelers and diabetes buddies. Enjoy!
Learning 1 – Always pack a manual glucose meter
Nowadays I have a sensor glued to my arm with which I measure my blood sugar. Although this is a life-changing invention one can never be too safe. After a sweaty day at the beach the sensors tend to fall off, and you might not have room for too many sensors in your luggage. Also my monitor that comes with the sensor mysteriously broke in the safety control at the airport on my way to Edinburgh last year. Unfortunately I couldn’t see this misfortune coming, which resulted in panic and an expensive story at a pharmacy. So, unless you want to make the same mistake as I did, always make sure to bring an extra glucose meter!
Learning 2 – Look up everything about vaccine before your trip
In 2016 I traveled to Colombia. I left for Colombia without vaccine against the yellow fever. Stupid me, since the virus existed in areas we aimed to travel to. Luckily they offered the vaccine freely at both the airport and the bus station in Bogotá. The luck however faded when I was denied the vaccine because of my diabetes with the vague explanation that “insulin and this vaccine don’t go together” (you had to fill in a blanket where one question specifically asked about diabetes). It later turned out to be false facts.
Instead I had to visit a private clinic in Medellin to get the vaccine (not free anymore). I then had to lie to the doctor when he asked me the same question; “Do you have diabetes?” “No”, I answered, and tried to keep a steady voice. So in order to avoid any hassle, make sure to have all everything concerning vaccine covered before you travel!
Learning 3 – Always bring a medical certificate
As most diabetics might already know, you are sometimes obliged to show a medical certificate concerning your diabetes at airports. Even though diabetes is a world spread phenomenon, a ton of insulin shots in your bag may appear a bit fishy. So, always make sure to bring a certificate signed by your doctor in case of an emergency.
What I however didn’t know before was that it’s also a great idea to bring the same certificate when you’re about to enter a nightclub. Well, at least that was the case in Mexico City. When the guard searched through my bad and found the suspicious insulin shots she turned ambivalent. My explanation wasn’t worth anything and I had to leave the shots with the guard until I left the club. Thank God I still had my glucose meter available, and my blood sugar levels just happened to be stable. But still, it caused too much unnecessary stress. So, make sure to bring your certificate when you go clubbing! (Or whenever you fear someone might examine your bag).
The absence of knowledge from other people
It can be a struggle in itself balancing your blood sugar levels when travelling. Dealing with other peoples prejudicies surrounding diabetes on top of that gets really tireing. One misconception is the equivalence between diabetes and obesity. Sure, it’s not entirely false, since diabetes type 2 can develop from overweight. However one cannot draw any parallels between obesity and diabetes typ 1. In fact scientists still don’t know the causes of diabetes type 1. And still you often get comments from random people saying things like:
“How can you have diabetes? You are not particularly big.”
Another peculiar bad habit is when people tell you diabetic horror stories. My Spanish teacher in Colombia felt it was a great thing to tell me about his uncle who tragically past away in diabetes. A colleague of mine came to think of a girl who “turned into a vegetable” after a night with too high blood sugar. A third person refused to serve me potatoes because she read somewhere that it’s “really dangerous for people with diabetes”. Well, I can’t say these narratives qualify as any feel-good-stories, and I’m not sure I need to hear them.
I do however realize that people in general mean well, so I decided to use my travels to spread knowledge about diabetes. As diabetics we serve the important purpose of educating confused souls about this diagnosis. And what better way of doing that than travelling? What do you say, are you with me?
The injustice of diabetes
Important to add is that diabetes still is an incurable disease. And without access to insulin it will eventually take your life. The world is an unjust place where many people (particularly in poorer countries) cannot afford insulin, and that is a truth sometimes impossible to understand. Undoubtedly this serves as one of the explanations for the misconceptions and lack of knowledge regarding diabetes.