I love traveling because it allows me to learn new things, meet new people, and explore new places. The traveling bug bit me at a young age when my family would drive from Florida to South Carolina to visit our extended relatives. In preparation for the trip, my mother and grandmother would dump mounds of coins onto the living room floor so that everyone could take part in separating, counting, and rolling the coins. They had saved a year’s worth of spare change in old Jheri Curl activator jars to make sure that we could afford the trip. Being a part of this family ritual of strategically saving for a year, planning meticulously, and sharing collectively made me value traveling.
By the time I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2011, I had visited eight countries and had many more on my bucket list. I wondered if I would ever travel again because I felt overwhelmed with having to count carbohydrates, calculate insulin injections, plan meals, and record blood sugar results. I didn’t see how I would ever fit traveling back into the matrix. Three months later, however, I concluded that I wasn’t going to allow diabetes to steal my joy of traveling and I took my first international flight to Paris, France. Since my diagnosis, I’ve added 13 more countries to my tally and learned some essential tactics along the way.
My top priority is to avoid a crisis where I need medical care while traveling abroad. Although medical tourism is popular in some of the countries I’ve visited, like Thailand, I’d rather not find out how much it would cost financially or in time away from sightseeing to seek medical care. Here are some tips that have helped me navigate diabetes as I move around the world.
- I always wear a medical alert bracelet or charm. Having something on hand that allows me to make diabetes visible when traveling has come in handy multiple times. The medical symbol is universal, so it transcends any language barriers.
- I keep candy or glucose tablets within arm’s reach. I learned this the hard way after not having anything to treat a low blood sugar on an airplane. My blood sugar level was dropping as we landed and despite pressing the light for assistance, no flight attendant came to check on me. I survived the ordeal but I never want to experience that again, so I make sure to keep something at my seat at all times.
- I carry pieces of paper with “I have diabetes” written on them in the local language. I started doing this after visiting Inner Mongolia where English speakers are few and far between. I initially did this as a way to communicate if I was experiencing hypoglycemia, but I found that it also comes in handy when dining because waiters will avoid adding sugar in your tea or will offer items with reduced sugar.
- I have to relax and go with the fluctuating flow. Traveling is exciting, but it is also a stressor. Last summer, I traveled to five countries and had to talk myself out of feelings of frustration when I couldn’t read the food labels or read the menus to know what the carbohydrate count was in the foods I ate. In those times, I refocus my thoughts and remind myself that I’m only there for a short time and being flexible and going with the flow is an important aspect of international travel. I remind myself that I will be back in my comfort zone very soon.
Phyllisa Derose was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2011. At the time she was scared of what others might think and began blogging under an alias. Now, years later, she strives to help others fight diabetes stigma. Phylissa blogs at DiagnosedNOTdefeated.com and is the founder of Black Diabetic Info.