Abroad with Diabetes

Planning, preparing, and traveling abroad with diabetes.

kalimah bioBy Kalimah Johnson

October 2009 — I just returned from the trip of my life!  I have always wanted to go to Africa but had no idea when or how I would have the chance.  I knew for sure that I would try to go in my lifetime.  When I turned 40 and had not accomplished traveling abroad, therefore I knew I had to do something about it.  In preparation I had little concern about how I would manage my condition while traveling abroad with diabetes.  I must say that I was entirely too excited about the trip to actively think about and/or plan for sugar control while abroad, but in a country where the resources are different than in the United States, my medical issues should have actually been one of my first priorities.   But it wasn't.

I packed my meter, my strips, my meds and I reminded my partner to do the same.  She did not pack her meter, but that is a whole other story in itself. I thought I needed a doctor's note to bring my meter but that was not the case at all and I was relieved to find that out.  I also packed healthy snack bars and crackers to have with us at all times in case we had to skip a meal and/or to take with our malaria pills.  

So with all my bags packed to go I was ready to see Africa - the motherland!

Needless to say, I was awestruck by the people, the land, the history, and how it was just altogether a beautiful place!   One other main issues facing us as we traveled abroad with diabetes is that in Ghana and Senegal (which is in the western region of Africa), the infrastructures are fragmented.  Sometimes we have to travel where there was no running water, the electricity would go out periodically, and the time zone changes made it a challenge to monitor my blood sugar.  But I was so excited about being there I actually ignored my need to test my blood sugar for first three days in Africa.

Until I got a rude awakening.  We were visiting the memorial site of Kwame Nkrumah, who was the first black national president of Ghana after British rule and the infamous colonizing of this particular area.  The guide told us all about this great man's life, his goal to unify black people all over the world, and to finally provide leadership that would reconcile the atrocities of the slave trade and its impact on the Ghana people today.  We walked into this beautiful stone and marble structure which held his remains and the remains of his wife next to him.  Someone from our group asked, "How did his wife die?" and the guide responded, "Complications of type 2 diabetes."  

I thought immediately about how diabetes has impacted my life and the life of my family.  I also thought about how my family has DNA linkages in this area and I began to wonder how many other folks in Ghana suffer from type 2 diabetes.  Then I asked myself why had I not tested since I landed and why did I place my health on the back burner as a result of the excitement of being in a new place?  I promised to test that night when we got to the hotel.  I had my meter with me and was going to test at the memorial site but when I got to the rest room they did not have running water and I was uncomfortable with using just the hand sanitizer I had with me to prepare for the prick.  And just where in the hell are my alcohol pads anyway that I thought I packed?   I guess I can be so Americanized at times and how assuming of me to think that running water is in abundance in a third world country.  Thankfully, my before bedtime blood sugar check read 134 mg/dl.

Checking my blood sugar levels was a challenge because I just did not feel like testing.  I was eating mostly fried foods because even at the "five star" hotels (which were very nice) had questionable water sources, and I was afraid to see what my numbers were with this new diet of mostly fried foods, beer, non-diet soda, and very limited fruits and vegetables.

So I said the hell with it … test when I am back in the States.  Until I got another rude awakening by eating something that did not agree with me and becoming violently ill for about 16 hours.  I wanted to test to make sure my sugar was not being affected by this illness.  The meter read 94, 102, and 186.

Yet again, I did not test for a few more days, then, I overheard someone in my group say their sugar was 240 mg/dl that morning!  First off, I was unaware that anyone else with us was diabetic, besides my partner, and secondly, it would have been ideal to be aware of everyone's chronic health issue, in case there was an emergency.  Luckily, health issues were never an issue.

So the idea of checking my blood sugar while abroad with diabetes was not a priority, I am glad I was prepared to do so.  If I had to give myself a grade on my dedication to diabetes on my trip, I would give myself a "D," although Africa was beautiful and I was glad I had a chance to see all that I saw and do all that I did!  I was there in Ghana while our President Barack Obama and his family was there and what a celebration of American pride!  (I was interviewed about my trip on Good Morning America and if you want to see the interview, you can!)

My type 2 diabetes and my trip to Africa yielded several thoughts that I will keep in mind the next time I travel abroad:

1.    Be prepared with meds, health records, meter, and snacks!
2.    Test in the morning and at bedtime daily!
3.    Inform my travel partners of my type 2 status!
4.    Find support from others to keep me honest about regular testing!
5.    Lastly, keep a journal about your health and how you feel during the trip!

For more information about traveling abroad with type 2 diabetes search our dLife website and always remember to put yourself first when traveling, have fun, and take lots of pictures…

Got it, Sugar?  Good. 

Read more of Kalimah Johnson's columns, Get it Together, Sugar, here.


dLife's Viewpoints columnists are not all medical experts, but everyday people living with diabetes and sharing their personal experiences, most often at a set point in time. While their method of diabetes management may work for them, everyone is different. Please consult with your diabetes care team before acting on anything you read here to find out what will work best for you.

Last Modified Date: June 10, 2013

All content on dLife.com is created and reviewed in compliance with our editorial policy.

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by Brenda Bell
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