After the stories of Travel with Scoliosis and Travel in a Wheelchair, I continue my Chronic Illness Chronicles, with a guest post by Crystal from Stranger in a Strange Land.
Crystal suddenly was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and shares with you her story on how she continues to travel with diabetes and what kind of impact it has on her life and travels.
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For the first twenty-three and a half years of my life, my pancreas functioned exactly as it was supposed to. It produced insulin and regulated my blood sugar.
I traveled to 24 countries, studied abroad for two semesters in England, and moved to Iceland for my job as a figure skating coach.
Then, my pancreas decided to retire. Nearly every day for two weeks, I’d carry my laptop to a coffee shop, turn it on, and discover that I had absolutely no energy to write posts for my “Stranger in a Strange Land” travel blog.
The lethargy wasn’t just with blogging.
Tasks that I usually found easy were suddenly incredibly challenging. I couldn’t understand why I was so tired all the time. One night I slept from 6 PM until 11 AM the next day, my longest sleep in recent memory.
Type 1 Diabetes Symptoms
Other bizarre symptoms started happening, like the painful swelling of both ankles. As a figure skater, I had frequent ankle injuries on my right ankle. I also sprained my left ankle once, falling down the stairwell of a hostel in Prague.
But it was odd for them to both be swollen without recollection of twisting them.
I was also extremely thirsty. I stepped on a scale for the first time in a while and saw eleven pounds of weight loss without increasing my exercise or changing my diet. If anything I was eating more than normal!
When I woke up every single day for a week, I became really lightheaded, sick to my stomach, and started seeing spots. This whole time, I had the nagging feeling that I was diabetic. I looked up a list of symptoms and to my simultaneous alarm and acceptance, I had every single one.
I went to a doctor, who told me I was young and healthy and had nothing to worry about.
At my insistence, he signed for blood work. The day after I got the blood work, I got a call to go to the ER immediately. My fasting blood sugar was at 19. Normal is 4-6. The doctors told me I have a life-threatening, incurable disease known as type 1 diabetes.
Also sometimes called juvenile diabetes because it is often diagnosed in childhood.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is not caused by diet or lifestyle. It is an autoimmune disease where the immune system destroys the beta cells that produce insulin.
It cannot be prevented and while it may have some genetic factor, many diabetics, like myself, are the only ones in their family. For more information on Type 1 Diabetes, check beyondtype1 and JDRF.
Travel to the land of Diabetes
Of all the strange lands I have traveled through, the land of a diabetes diagnosis is by far the strangest. I was unwillingly thrown into a full immersion course for the language of diabetes.
Suddenly I heard terms like “hypoglycemia,” “ketones,” “continuous glucose monitor,” and “carbohydrate counting.”
My blood sugar was regularly in the 20s, I felt terrible all of the time, and thought I would never be able to travel again.
First Steps to Travel with Diabetes
I started with tentative one-hour trips from my home base in Reykjavik, well stocked with insulin, test strips, and emergency sugar.
One of the scariest experiences during my early days of travel with diabetes was getting low blood sugar after going to the Blue Lagoon. I was a passenger in a car traveling to Soheimer Ecovillage.
Sometimes my low blood sugars respond immediately, but this was one of those hypos that lasted for an extended period.
Travel with Diabetes in Iceland
The roads between towns in Iceland are often desolate, without other cars or signs of civilization for miles. At the time of my low blood sugar, there wasn’t even cell phone reception!
As I drank juice and ate some sugar pumpkin cookies my dad sent me from the States, I couldn’t help but think of what could happen if I didn’t get my blood sugar up.
About six weeks after my diagnosis, I traveled six hours north to Akureyri, Iceland to coach at a competition. This wasn’t so scary, because it was still the same country and my prescription worked at any pharmacy in Iceland.
Overall, my blood sugar behaved pretty well that weekend, though there was one challenge. I had packed my own food to make sure I had enough. I gave myself insulin for what I thought I would be eating.
But then one of the skater’s parents brought me more food, which had more carbs than I was planning. That with the adrenaline of the competition shot my blood sugar way up and required some extra insulin and lots of water to bring it down again.
Diabetes and Travel
The true test came when I traveled out of Iceland for the first time for a weekend trip to Dublin.
In Iceland, I can just walk into a pharmacy and get supplies whenever I need them. In Ireland, I needed to take anything I might need with me. Though diabetes has not gotten in the way of my traveling, it has put an end to my days as a light packer!
What to Pack when you Travel with Diabetes?
I daily carry around a bag equivalent in size to the one I used to use for an entire month of backpacking around Europe.
Each day, I carry on my meter, test strips, a finger pricker, and a lancet, which I use to check my blood sugar.
I have two different forms of insulin pens, one long-acting and one short-acting. I use the long-acting one once a day and the short-acting at mealtimes or if I need to make a correction when my blood sugar goes too high.
Keeping it cool
When I travel to a hot, humid climate, I need to carry a refrigerated case or cooling packaging for my insulin to prevent it from spoiling.
When my blood sugar drops too low, which can happen with too much insulin, not enough food, exercise, or a million other mysterious factors, I must consume carbohydrates to bring it back up. So I am always equipped with juice boxes, glucose tablets, and snacks.
I go through at least four-five needles a day with my insulin pens. So I make sure I carry enough of those with me to last the whole duration of my trip, plus extra. I also pack spare lancets, the charger for my meter, extra insulin and a needle disposal box. I also pack my journal where I chart my blood sugar and insulin dosage.
Eating out when Travelling with Diabetes
Just a few months ago, I was able to eat copious amounts of pasta, pizza, and gelato without so much as thought about the number of carbs in each portion.
Contrary the common perception that diabetics can never eat sugar or carbs, we can, we just need to be careful to match the amount of insulin to the amount of carbs. This rate is different for everyone.
But before I order my Italian pasta or gelato, I must consult two different apps on my phone to estimate the carb count as best as I can and inject the appropriate amount of insulin.
As a precaution, I make sure I have contact information with a diabetes specialist in the city I visit and know the names and locations of the local hospitals.
If I travel with a friend, I make sure she knows about my condition and the emergency call number. If I travel alone, I wear a medical alert tag with “Type 1 Diabetic” written in English, Icelandic, and Spanish. Type 1 diabetes does not stop me from traveling, it just tags along for the journey!
I am a Traveller with Diabetes
I’ve seen my blood sugar as high as 29.7. At 30 it is possible to pass out from high blood sugar.
And I saw my blood sugar as low as 1.3. Which is so low most people would have passed out or had a seizure.
I have always appreciated the beauty and wonder of our world. But having to fight for my life every single day makes me realize just how lucky I am that this disease is manageable and I can still travel with diabetes to see this wonderful world.
To learn more about Type 1 Diabetes or to join an online community of diabetics and those impacted, visit my Crystal’s ambassador link.
If you want to follow Crystal on her journey, you can head over to her blog at Stranger in A Strange Land and you can follow her on Instagram too.
Are you an avid traveler? Do you have a chronic illness like me or like Crystal? Do you want to be featured in my Chronic Illness Chronicles too? Share your story with me at email@example.com
Read more from the Chronic Illness Chronicles
What an inspiring read! I can only imagine how being diagnosed with diabetes would impact travelling and make certain aspects difficult. The fact that Crystal doesn’t let that stop her is awesome! What a great inspiration, especially for others who have diabetes who might otherwise let their diagnosis restrict them from travelling!
Thank you for your comment Haylee. I hope to inspire other by my story and sharing the stories of people like Crystal.
Thank you for sharing your amazing story and keeping it positive and solution-oriented. Looking forward to following along on your adventures!
Thank you for your comment Morgan, happy you liked Chrystal’s story.