I was officially diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes on January 16, 1995, just a couple weeks shy of my 26th birthday. I woke up early in the morning in Birmingham, England feeling pretty awful. Figured it was something I ate. I mean…I felt…really bad. But it was time to head home, so I got on the airplane with my colleagues and spent the next 9 hours or so feeling worse. One of the flight attendants even asked me if I was OK? By the time we landed in Chicago, I did not have the strength to pull my bag out of the overhead. Someone helped me with that, and we made our way off the airplane.
Thankfully, a colleague flagged down a cart. I began to hyperventilate as we arrived in customs, but we didn’t get in line. I was driven to the US Public Health Service office. The very first words out of the nurse’s mouth were “are you a diabetic?” I said no. I remember seeing some passports getting looked at by someone, but that’s about it. It wasn’t long before we were on our way to a local hospital. In a scene straight out of ER, I was carted in and a doctor with hair down to his waist walks in, takes one look at me and says “are you a diabetic?” I said no. My blood sugar checked in at 800. I was a diabetic. I suppose it is appropriate in some ways that I started my diabetes journey while traveling, and I would never let it keep me from doing so.
As I mentioned in my intro post, I get a bit of traffic from people searching for information on traveling with diabetes, especially dealing with security. I can understand why. It seems that I read a lot of news clips about some negative interaction with TSA or other airline/airport employee about difficulties with insulin, syringes, pumps, and screening. As I said in my post, I have never had a negative interaction with a single TSA employee. Perhaps it’s because I’m prepared, or maybe just fortunate. I think the former, but we’ll see as we work through the series.
When getting ready to travel as a diabetic, it’s important to be prepared. Read the security requirements/policies at TSA.gov (search for “diabetes”), and if you are really on the ball, contact the hotel you’ll be staying with and ask if your room has a working minibar fridge. If not, ask the hotel to provide a refrigerator to keep your insulin cold. If the answer is no, there are ways to improvise. First, focus on cool, not cold. Time out of the fridge is not going to cook your insulin as long as you don’t leave it in the sun or in a parked car. I always travel with a supply of zip top bags. Double bag your insulin, fill your hotel ice bucket half way, and place your insulin on top. This will keep your insulin cool, and protected by double plastic bags and the box the vial comes in.
Insulin maintenance is a bit easier for me as a pumper because I only use one kind of insulin, fast acting Humalog, and I run through a few vials of that a month. First insulin rule I learned from my first endocrinologist – insulin at room temperature can be used up to 30 days, refrigerated, use it within 90 days. Taking a cruise? Reach out to the cruise line. They will provide refrigeration, and a sharps container in your stateroom, but I personally do not bother asking for a refrigerator. Nor have I traveled with “cold packs” in many years. You may have different rules, and different comfort levels, and that’s fine. Share your own tips in the comments. (Helpful hint: if I’m in a hotel with a refrigerator, I always place a bottle of water inside first to see if it freezes. Frozen insulin is just as bad as insulin that has been too warm.)
Another important thing I would say to any traveler preparing to take their first or 400th trip as a diabetic is you have to have a checklist. It is just too easy to forget something that you are going to need, especially if you are packing in a hurry. At a minimum, your travel checklist should include:
- Note: Figure out how much you think need for your trip, then increase that by at least 25 percent. Traveling internationally? Double it!
- Spare syringes
- Insulin pump reservoirs
- Infusion sets
- Spare AAA batteries (or whatever size batteries your medical devices need)
- Spare test strips/lancets/glucose meter
- Alcohol swabs/antiseptic prep
- All other medications
- Go to this website and translate “I have diabetes” into the language of your destination