Gap Year

How to Manage Your Illness While Abroad

Making the decision to travel or live abroad is an exciting one, but presents unique challenges if you face a long-term illness or medical issues. Here's how to manage them and still make your abroad dreams come true.

Arthur W,. Study in Christchurch

Sometimes, planning a gap year overseas is about more than just expense budgets, itineraries, and figuring out how to keep in touch with loved ones. For some, there are medical hurdles that prevent easy travel, and "backpacking" isn't as simple as it sounds. Luckily, it's still possible.

As someone living with an autoimmune disease, I can say firsthand that yes, you will have to consider other factors when choosing where to go; yes, you will have to make some sacrifices when it comes to "keeping up" with travel companions; and yes, you will have some bad days. But, there's hope -- it's just a matter of being informed and realistic about each day. To help you get on your way to seeing the world despite your pre-existing illness, here are six things to plan for and be aware of if you plan on living abroad with a medical condition.

1. Understand Your Medical History and Current Treatment Plan

I have Lupus Nephritis: an autoimmune disease that has caused me kidney complications for almost fifteen years. If you asked me about my condition, I could explain it in three different languages (with very basic, elementary explanations), provide biopsy and diagnosis dates, list every medicine I've ever been on, as well as their doses and side effects, and provide doctor, insurance, and emergency contact details within minutes. That is how dedicated I am to my treatment plan.

You're probably wondering: is it really that important, or am I just bragging about my spectacular memory? No, it is really that important.

When you head overseas, you'll be your own, most important advocate. Your parents or doctor won't be there. It is your job to clearly communicate your condition in order to get the best help.

Yes, you'll make tons of friends and create meaningful relationships, but when it comes to your health, you will be the only one who can explain your history and treatments. More than likely, no one is going to call or email for more information. Communication will be essential, especially in the event of an emergency.

2. Create an Action Plan With Your Doctor

 Create an Action Plan With Your Doctor

Just because you're going overseas doesn't mean you don't need to keep your doctor informed. The best way to live overseas without worrying about the worst possible illness-related scenarios is to create an action plan with your doctor.

When I went to travel the world for a year, I talked to my doctor first. I told her my meds were about to run out in 30 days, and I was worried I wasn't going to have enough medication. I didn't know what the pharmaceutical availabilities would be and wasn't sure where or how I could get more.

Because of this, she wrote me a 9-month prescription (three 90-day refills) for my Lupus-related medication, and I went to refill them before departing. My doctor and I also discussed the Lupus signs I should watch out for and triggers to avoid, as well as what to do in the event of flare ups -- sudden and often extreme symptoms of any illness.

3. Check Your Medical Insurance

One of the scariest things about planning to travel the world with an illness was knowing my medical insurance would likely not cover me abroad. Plus, I was in a position where I didn't want to get insurance because I preferred spending my saved money on travel instead.

Not traveling with insured healthcare was an extreme risk, and while I don't recommend it, here's why I did it:

  • I was daring (read: immature) and on a tight budget.
  • I had been in "good health" (no failing kidneys) for over a year and after seeing the doctor every three months, we both decided my consistent good health qualified me for doctor's approval (which I didn't need, but wanted as a second opinion).
  • I heard out-of-pocket healthcare costs were affordable overseas (I was going to South America).
  • I didn't know about affordable travel health insurance plans.

Now that I've become a seasoned traveler, I can say that many standard American health insurances either don't cover international travel or have really crappy plans. Your best bet is to call your insurance and check what your coverage is like, or switch to an international medical insurance plan

Many bloggers and frequent travelers often recommend World Nomads as a top choice. Traveling with a medical condition might mean you need to get airlifted out of a small town or have an emergency surgery (heaven forbid!), so insurance is a small price to pay in the long run.

4. Be Upfront About What You Can and Can't Do

Unfortunately, the term "gap year" doesn't equate to "accessible travel experiences around the world." I wish it did, really. But the reality is, there are going to be some places you may not be able to visit, some foods you may not be able to try, and some activities you may not be able to join -- at least, not without help.

A solution? Just be upfront about your health and possible challenges you may face. Information and awareness is your best tool when planning a trip. If stairs are a problem, find out if you can get first floor or elevator access to hotels, as international hotels are often not accessible.

Be Upfront About What You Can and Can't Do

If you're wheelchair-bound but want some sun, look for beaches with ramps or beach-friendly wheelchairs for rent. If you're hearing or visually impaired, sign up for tours that specialize in experiences that accommodate these hurdles.

Most of all, understand that depending on your condition, you may not be able to backpack or go swimming alone, stay out in the sun, or eat certain foods. But there will still be plenty of things you can do, and that's what makes traveling so awesome!

5. Get Comfortable With "Bad Days"

Disease and illness can come in many shapes and forms and aren't always visible. It's not just a broken leg or the flu. You can look perfectly healthy and glowing while battling an army of pain inside. Remember that the people you meet along the way won't always understand or relate to that. Don't be hard on yourself if you feel misunderstood or like an outsider at any point in time.

Whether it's mental illness, physical impairments, or invisible diseases that aren't obvious beyond laboratory testing, don't beat yourself up for having "bad days.

The more you feel frustrated or fight it, the worse it would likely get -- and no one wants that, right? Soon enough, you might even learn that your best travel mates may have struggles of their own, and find new ways to bond.

6. Embrace Slow Travel

Don't succumb to the pressures of country counting. You might want to see the world, but taking your time to explore will not only allow you to see a lot more than the touristic hot spots, but will also be much easier on your mental and physical health.

Plan your itineraries with rest days in between each day of exploring. Take time to nap, exercise, eat right, and journal on your off days. Call friends and family at home and catch up, or even peruse all the photos you've taken while on your trip.

You'll find that while you may not see 30+ countries in a year, you'll be able to actually say you've truly experienced new places, cuisines, and cultures, while taking care of your mind, body, and soul.