Traveling with diabetes can be a daunting task for even the most experienced PWDs (persons with diabetes).
Did I pack enough needles? Is my insulin safe? Got backup prescriptions just in case? Are there doctors where I’m going who’ll accept my insurance if need be?
Yup, traveling to an unfamiliar country can be especially challenging with diabetes…
Today, we’re happy to introduce Stephanie Bradford from central Pennsylvania, a freelance writer and marketing consultant who’s been living with type 1 since her diagnosis at age 7 back in 1976. She maintains tight control using Lantus and Humalog shots, but on a recent emergency trip to France she ran into some supply shortages and needed to rely on the country’s unfamiliar health care system. Here’s what Stephanie encountered:
When I travel, syringes have always been a sticking point.
As an adolescent, I went on a two-day hiking and camping trip with my Girl Scout troop. My mother asked me about a dozen times if I had my insulin. “Yes!” I replied, each time rolling my eyes a little more.
It wasn’t until we’d set up camp, and started dinner prep, that I realized I’d forgotten my syringes. One two-mile hike (with the ever-patient leader) and a pay phone call to Mom later, and the problem was solved.
Two years ago, I popped over to New York City for a fun-filled weekend of eating, drinking, walking and sight-seeing. Part of the “fun” involved negotiating with the local pharmacy for syringes; I’d arrived at the hotel with only the standard three that I carry in my purse, not the 10 I’d need for the weekend, plus the extras that I always pack.
While my prescription was useless because it was out-of-state (there went the insurance coverage) I was able to purchase some over-the-counter.
Most recently: my emergency-trip-to-France and the sequel to it. On that unplanned trip, my emergency need for syringes and test strips came about when the trip was extended by eight days.
I was in France because my mother had gone through emergency intestinal surgery at the American Hospital of Paris in Neuilly sur Seine.
The estimate, when I left the U.S., was that Mom would be in the hospital for about a week, and then need another week of in-country recovery before she could travel back home.
I packed accordingly, tossing multiple packs of syringes into both my carry on and my small suitcase, and then an extra 10 pack, just in case. I took enough test strips to get me through 14 days of testing four to six times a day.
Eight days into the trip it was clear that I was stuck in France for longer than the originally planned two weeks.
It was also clear that frequent blood testing (due to extensive walking, weird schedules, jet lag, and carb counting unfamiliar foods) had depleted my supply of test strips.
In France, pharmacies have green crosses above the doors, and seem to have “themes” such as “maternity” or “beauty.” Having no idea which to pick, I simply walked into the pharmacy nearest my hotel.
Two things happened that made me want to import the entire French medical system. First, the pharmacist listened to me explain my problem, in English: I’m an insulin-dependent diabetic, I’m in France on an emergency basis, I’m running out of test strips. She said that, yes, I could purchase test strips – great! But then language differences interfered.
I use a FreeStyle Lite meter. She recognized the meter, and brought out strips that were FreeStyle, but they were called “Papillon Easy” not “Lite.”
Some part of my brain fired up and I remembered that there was a butterfly on my test strips. And, papillon is French for butterfly. I showed her my strips, in particular the butterfly, and she then opened the package of French test strips and we compared. I was pretty sure it was a match, the pharmacist less sure. So, she called the company. There was a two-minute conversation and voila! The strips were the same.
Oh, except for the cost. I paid about $40. U.S. for 100 strips. That’s less than half of what it would have cost me in the states. That’s the second thing that makes me think the U.S. medical system could learn a lot from France.
A few days later, in my fourth and final set of accommodations, I began to unpack, again.
Note to self: do not travel to Europe on an emergency basis at the beginning of tourist season. Finding a place to stay will be nearly impossible.
While unpacking I noticed I was down to three packs of syringes, plus the few in my purse. I counted days; I counted syringes. With two shots of Lantus and three or four of Humalog a day, even if I re-used syringes (I know, it’s frowned upon by BD and most physicians, but we all do it…) I would only have six syringes to get me through the final travel day.
One flight delay and I was hosed.
So, back out to the pharmacy… Although it was a hike from my new place, I returned to the one where I’d purchased my test strips.
They remembered me, which I’d like to credit to the excellent service standards in the French medical industry. But, more likely it’s because they’d spent nearly an hour with me the first time I’d been in the store. Also, I may have been slightly high on stress and tiny cups of French coffee at the time.
Syringes? Not a problem. Exact match? Well, all the numbers (which, even on American syringes are metric) were the same and the package was marked “insuline.” I figured they’d work, so I bought a pack of ten. They cost me about $4.50 U.S.
Although I didn’t need any this trip, I did ask the American liaison at the hospital about insulin. It turns out that you do need a prescription, just like at home. I also asked how I would handle urgent, but non-life threatening, situations?
“I believe for something minor, like strep throat, perhaps the best option (in Paris) would be to call SOS Medecins – their operator will ask some questions and can actually have a doctor at your home in half an hour or so.
And it only costs around €70… (About $100. U.S.)?!
“Often, they can give you enough medicine to tide you over for a few hours till you can get to a pharmacy,” the official added.
Wow, who knew the French could be so accommodating?
This trip was not, by any stretch of the imagination, my best planned or most enjoyed trip to France. But, it was one of those learning experiences– one that’s best left unrepeated.
Except for the part where I calculated that for each mile walked, I could eat nearly a quarter of a baguette. That part I’d do again.
Wow is right, Stephanie. So glad the healthcare system in France was so helpful. We hope your mom is doing better, and thanks for sharing your story! Just shows the importance of having an on-the-ground support system when traveling with diabetes.