Living Remote Year with Diabetes
Adjusting to a new city every four weeks is hard.
There’s a new commute to work; maybe it’s a 30-minute walk or a quick tram ride. There’s different foods to try; sometimes it’s endless meat and cheese, and other times it’s tacos galore. And then there’s the city culture; maybe it’s normal to have sugary mint tea in the afternoon, or dance the night away until sunrise.
All of that makes traveling awesome. But as a type 1 diabetic, the same stuff can also make life difficult.
I’m not here to whine. I could probably count on both hands how many times I’ve complained about having diabetes over the past 19 years. It’s part of who I am, and I don’t want to know who or where I’d be without it. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not serious. It's the seventh leading cause of death in the U.S.
It takes a lot of patience, planning and attention to maintain good, stable blood sugars. Having a daily routines make that easy – waking up and going to bed at the same time, eating a well-balanced diet at regular meal times, planned and routine exercise, etc.
On Remote Year there’s no such thing as a daily routine. Take this past week for example:
Sunday: 12 hours of Netflix, cold medicine and UberEATS.
Monday: A full day of work followed by Zumba class.
Tuesday: A few hours of work followed by a deep-tissue massage, more work, phone calls with friends back home and a few hours of writing.
Wednesday: Work, a volunteer meeting, more work, a two-hour social event followed by dinner and drinks out with friends.
Thursday: A full day of work followed by a Tinder date and night out.
Friday: A service day outside the city complete with a five-hours in a bus, a couple hours of walking and a delicious Colombian meal, followed by a proper St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Saturday: An early morning wake-up call, two-hour bus ride, three-hour hike, two hours of rock climbing and cave exploring, followed by dinner at a local restaurant and two hours on the road back home.
So, how does diabetes fit into this?
I get a lot of questions about how I keep control through all the craziness. But the truth is, I’m not the best diabetic. I struggle a lot with lots of ups and downs. But I manage because diabetes isn’t something that should get in the way of life. This is how I make it work -
I plan very carefully.
When I accepted a spot on Remote Year, I was on the phone with my doctors and insurance company immediately. Fifteen emails, 10 phone calls, four appointments, one meeting and nine weeks later, I finally had a full year’s worth of supplies just in time to pack my bags. This includes insulin, pump infusion sets, reservoirs and prep wipes, test strips, needles, a back-up pump and a few other miscellaneous medications.
Diabetics: Start planning as early as possible, and don’t take no for an answer! Asking for a year’s worth of supplies isn’t something your doctors or insurance company hears regularly, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
I pack strategically.
On any given travel day, you can find me with four to five gallon-sized Ziploc bags full of diabetic supplies. This is about three months worth that I replenish during trips back to the U.S. or when family comes to visit.
Right now, I’m traveling with one check-in bag, a rolling carry-on and a small backpack. I divide my supplies up somewhat evenly between the three bags. I didn’t regret that move when one of my bags got lost on the way to Mexico City...
Diabetics: Hope for the best and plan for the worst when it comes to packing. Back-up pump and insulin should NEVER leave your possession during travel day.
I don’t mess around at airport security.
In my carry-on, I typically have anywhere from 6-12 bottles of insulin, 10 infusion sets and reservoirs (with needles), test strips, lancets, my meter and a back-up pump. Oh, and my laptop, kindle, five different charging cords and more than the allowed amount of travel-sized liquids. Technically I should be dumping my entire carry-on into plastic bins at security. Instead, I remove my laptop and send the rest through. Amazingly, I haven't had my bag pulled for additional screening yet.
However, I do always get the pleasure of a pat down and explosive trace detection screening.
Diabetics: Airport security doesn’t like it when you joke or try to make conversation during your additional screening. Also, keep a note from your doctor explaining why you have all this stuff. I keep one in my passport holder, just in case.
I tell people.
When people give me special attention or sympathy it makes me uncomfortable. I generally try to take care of diabetes-related tasks without drawing attention because I never want it to be a burden on others. But after 7.5 months traveling with the same people, I’ve become good at being open about it, and I’ve come to realize how vital that is.
During a ski trip in January I was out with a group of friends when a rare, dangerously low blood sugar snuck up on me. I knew I was low, but was having a difficult time testing my blood sugar and getting what I needed to correct it. That was the first time something like that had ever happened to me. Two Remote Year friends immediately realized something was wrong. They might not know how important that was, but I do.
Diabetics: What if I had never told them about my diabetes? Teach people how to help you.
I literally always have snacks.
I’m the girl who always has a big purse or bag. Recently people have started calling it my mom bag, from which they always seem to need something…
Among other things, glucose tabs and snacks are always in my mom bag. Earlier I mentioned some of the little things that make for a rough diabetic adjustment in a new city. I never quite know how a my new 30-minute walk to work will impact my blood sugar, if my schedule will allow for dinner at a normal time or exactly how much insulin to give myself for the arepas I bought from a street vendor. It’s a consistent guessing game, and I’m always prepared for when my guess is wrong.
Diabetics: The carb counts you have memorized from back home may not apply. I’ve overestimated the number of carbs in common things like juice, pizza, rice and fruit. Normal foods are slightly different in other parts of the world. Being a little off can make a big difference.
I reflect and make adjustments frequently.
I have bad diabetic days sometime. Bogota this month has been uncharacteristically tough. One day I struggle with lows, and when I try to make changes, I overshoot and start suffering from highs. Instead of letting this frustrate me, I try to pinpoint the cause and how I can adjust to prevent a repeat situation. Should I have eaten a snack before Zumba class? Maybe I suspended my pump for too long during the hike. Did I underestimate the number of carbs in something I ate during a food tour?
Diabetics: If you wear an insulin pump like me, you know how easy it is to make tiny adjustments. Don’t be afraid to do it! If something isn’t working, you can always change it back.
I stay positive.
If diabetes is the worst thing I have to deal with today, I’m happy. It’d be easy to get angry or stressed when diabetes throws a curveball at me. But, what’s the point? Traveling is for doing crazy things, making memories and growing. Instead of letting it inhibit points one and two, I choose to make it part of my growth zone every day, every week and every month.
Diabetics: You can travel! It's not always easy, but it's so worth it.
P.S. I’m obviously not a doctor. I’m just a person with a lots of experience and a few opinions on living with diabetes. Don’t make any medical decisions based on this, please. :)