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Getting Over Your Fears: A Guide To Studying Abroad With A Chronic Illness

January 21, 2016

Upon scouring the interwebs with a plastic press to the keywords "study" and "abroad," you'll stumble upon the traditional packing list. While cleverly masked in popping titles that ooze an aura of PICK ME! PICK ME! PICK ME!, they all say the same thing. Don't take too much clothing because even the most Eurotrashy is the finest Americlassy (also known as: Move over Hollister, hello Bershka, and hello realizing that we lack the sophisticated taste of our foreign counterparts across the Atlantic so we should buy ALL OF THE EUROPEAN CLOTHES). Don't take your hairdryer from the states because it can't handle the truth (of voltage discrepencies), and will fry upon connecting to your adaptor. Don't take toiletries (because, as crazy as this is going to sound, developed countries do sell shaving razors and shampoo). Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. These packing lists speak to the general population of college students as clueless as Cher in her yellow tartan plaid two-piece set. They, who find that their toughest issue pre-parture is toying with fantasies about legal drinking ages and budget airlines rather than paying attention to finals week, read these packing lists with the minimal amount of attention needed for fundamental comprehension, due to truly having nothing to worry about... Other than meeting the pesky weight limit of Lufthansa Flights or British Airways. 

For those of us who have chronic illnesses or, illnesses that last for over an extended period of time (oftentimes consequently transferring into the nomenclature of disease or condition),  the idea of packing to study and live overseas for over four months can be excrutiating and daunting. What do you mean I can't Skype my physician any time I want to because I'm six hours ahead and my homestay's WiFi only works in certain angles, in certain positions, and in certain corners of the house? Wait... Prescriptions? What? That's a thing? Uh... Mamá, Pops, Legal Guardian: Why can't you call this clinic in Spain, or Turkey, or South Africa, and make the appointment for me like you always do back home? 

As the questions, uncertainties, and hypotheticals pile up, the amount of students with chronic illnesses that decide to embark on the once-in-a-lifetime experience of studying abroad goes down too. I recall having many discussions after Haverminds- an organization that I co-founded along with my lovely pals Jack and Court at Haverford College that focuses on mental health- with peers of mine that have chronic illnesses that felt they could not study abroad because they would not be able to take their medications, get the proper dosage or the proper treatment, not have access to the same resources from back home, not be able to receive the same sympathy from professors, or would not qualify for accomodations. This simultaneously broke my heart because I was getting prepared to nurture my noggin- and my digestive tract- in the deliciously rich Barcelona while having a chronic illness, but this also congested my mind with pessimism and fear that I too would be unable to properly medicate or receive the proper medical care. 

This left me with a bunch of pre-departure and first-week jitters, and instead of visions of sugarplums and fairies dancing in my head during the holidays, I would toss and turn at night with visions of unaffordable pills and Customs Officials detaining me in airport prison. 

Now, safely in Barcelona and journeying through the "adjustment phase," I can now assert to all of you who are perusing this blog with your own doubts about being able to study abroad with a chronic illness, that you CAN do it, and you should NOT let the obnoxious obstacles that your body or your mind burden you with limit your ability to hop on an overnight flight to the destination of your scholarly and social dreams. 

Here is a brief list of general tips and tricks to make it here, and to make it through. It should be noted not all chronic illnesses are the same, and therefore, this list does not aim to be specific, but rather ample enough to touch upon core points that could make your study abroad experience a helluvalot better: 

  1. Speak to your physician with plenty of time before going abroad, so that they can authorize three-month supplies of prescription drugs, inhalers, mists, injections, or trackers. 
  2. Call your home insurance, and your IES Abroad insurance to make sure that they are aware of your needs and the specifics of your program (like how many weeks you'll be gone, where you're planning on going). 
  3. Keep in mind time differences. What worked for you as your optimal time to ingest seven pills at once in the United States will not be the same when you first arrive in a foreign country with a completely different time-zone. Try to gradually get "back to normal" by adjusting the time of intake every day. 
  4. Search on Google Maps where the nearest pharmacies are. Call them to ask if your medication can be purchased over-the-counter, as many drugs that are more regulated in the United States are feasibly found in other countries without a prescription from a doctor. If they cannot be purchased over-the-counter, ask the pharmacist what further protocol needs to be taken in order for you to obtain medication while abroad. 
  5. Find out the foreign names of your medications or medical devices. Learn how to pronounce them. Well. 
  6. Sleep. Everyone needs sleep, but those of us with a condition that is physically or mentally exhausting need it even more. Forgo dancing the night away Monday-through-Sunday, so that when you do go out, you'll actually enjoy yourself. Remember folks: Quality over Quantity, especially where your health and wellbeing is involved. 
  7. Limit your intake with foods, drugs, or drinks that could cause unpleasant or symptomatic interactions. Many anti-depressants, for example, do NOT under any circumstances combine well with grapefruit. Oh, and learn the names of these foods, drugs, or drinks in the native tongue of the place you will study in. Grapefruit = Pomelo or Toronja. 
  8. Self-care and self-love doesn't stop when you leave home. 
  9. If you're comfortable with it, let your roommates or program mates know that you have a chronic illness. Rather than awkwardly having to provide BS reasons as to why you can't do XYZ or have to do XYZ, getting this conversation "out of the way" early on can save future anguish for both parties. 
  10. When there's a will, there's a way. Don't worry. Look, I know I blog for IES Abroad and you may think that I have to tell you this, but I don't: IES Abroad has resources, and a staff that is willing to listen to (and address) your concerns. And if for some reason IES Abroad cannot provide it, then your homestay family, your friends, your residential advisor, the local pharmacist, a representative from the United States consulate, or a clinician Like one of my favorite Hilary Duff movies proclaims: "Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game"  (... okay, ya caught me, it's also a Babe Ruth quote). 


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