Traveling with Diabetes
I truly love to travel, it’s one of the biggest passions in my life.
To get to see, feel, sense, experience and smell the smells of a new place, is sometimes what keeps me going through a rough patch.
I try to travel as often as I can, meaning as often as money allows me to. And although I’ve never pursued this passion without diabetes, it still makes sure to keep me on my toes.
Like the other week, when I was traveling back from Stockholm.
You know those low blood sugars that you do e v e r y t h i n g in your power to turn, but they just stubbornly hang on as if they were the ones in danger?
The ones that leave you in full panic mode, because what if your blood sugar doesn’t turn in time? What happens if you pass out and become unconscious?
Normally that’s not really an issue for me, my lows usually respond quite well and fast to my figured out and well-rehearsed treatment.
Just this particular low blood sugar wanted to stay with me. And stay and stay and stay.
So, for a little background info… Ever since I got my insulin pump, every time I fly I have to turn my basal rate WAY down. As in to -85% of the normal dose. It doesn’t matter when during the morning, day, night or evening I fly, unless I basically turn off the basal, I will invariably have a hypo.
The first couple of times when this happened I didn’t understand anything. I asked the company that manufactures my pump if, by any chance, high altitudes could influence it? Of course not was the answer, which was later also confirmed by my lovely diabetes nurse.
To this day I still don’t know why my blood sugar plummets as soon as I’m in the air. But that’s not the point of this story.
So, before this particular flight, my husband and I grabbed something small to eat before boarding the plane, because airplane food is beyond terrible and shouldn’t be eaten by anyone.
My blood sugar then was kind of highish, around 8 mmol/l (144 mg/dl), so I bloused a minor amount for the food, bearing in mind I had to turn down my basal rate anyway. It’s gonna work out, I reassured myself.
We boarded, I sat down, and turned down my basal before having to stow my bag in the overhead bin as we we’re seated by the emergency exit.
The take off was smooth considering the weather conditions. The fasten seatbelt light went off, and I went to grab my phone from my stowed bag to finish an audiobook I had on there. “Might as well take down the whole thing” I remember thinking.
Suddenly, I get a massive urge to just talk, talk, talk to my husband. This should have been my first sign that everything wasn’t right in the blood sugar department.
We talk about a future holiday and where we should go, when I suddenly get vertigo while sitting down in my seat. “Wooow, what’s going on?!”
I grabbed my Dexcom and saw it at 5.9 mmol/l (106 mg/dl) and sinking, fast.
Basal was already basically turned off, so couldn’t do much more there. I grabbed a portion of glucose powder with 10 g carbs and chugged it, as I could feel how fast I was falling.
I waited the obligatory 10 minutes before checking both the Dexcom and manual blood sugar again. Dex said 4.5 mmol/ (81 mg/dl) and still falling. Manual check said 3.6 mmol/l (65 mg/dl).
“Fuck. What do I do?” I asked my rationally thinking better half.
“Have more glucose.” And I did. I had another 2 or 3 glucose tablets, munching on them like they were the lifeline I needed.
Considering my normal, total hypo correction is usually 4-8 grams of fast acting carbs, this was starting to worry me. I was up at more than double.
I was also running out of glucose tablets, as I barely ever need to use them anymore, I don’t carry an endless amount of them around anymore.
My darling husband called the flight attendant, asking her to quickly bring me some juice.
By the time the orange juice ran down my throat, I was in full-blown panic mode. Dexcom was still stubbornly pointing downwards.
This had now gone on for so long that my husband asked if they happened to have a Glucagon set in their onboard medicine kit, just in case. Of course, I hadn’t brought one with me. Why would I, I never need it and it’s one more thing for my poor back and shoulders to carry?
Turns out they didn’t have one. And even if they did, my husband, who has been brainwashed in how to use one of those things, wouldn’t have been allowed to administer it. It would have to be done by a medical professional.
As my blood sugar was still stubbornly going down, by this point at 2.4 mmol/l (43 mg/dl), I started to really panic.
Fast acting carbs were clearly not helping in time, there’s no Glucagon set and we still had 45 minutes until landing. If I pass out and lose consciousness now, I’m as good as dead. I don’t want to die here in an airplane, somewhere over Germany. Shit, piss, fuck.
I hear a flight attendant call out over the intercom: “One of our passengers is in need of immediate medical attention. Do we have any medical professionals on board?”
I had to laugh in the middle of my panic, that was a definite first for me. Very rarely have I needed to rely on complete strangers for help in treating a low blood sugar.
The most amazing thing was that on this flight of ca 200 passengers, there were 7 medical professionals. Seven, including a lovely doctor that kept me talking and drinking more orange juice.
The taste of the juice was so repulsive by this point. Eugh, how much I truly hated the taste of orange juice then. But it was my key back to life, so it was just to keep drinking it, especially as my blood sugar was still at 2.4 mmol/l (43 mg/dl).
After what seemed an eternity, panic, too many chalky glucose tablets and way too many glasses of yucky orange juice later, my new doctor friend told me to check my blood sugar again. 4.0 mmol/l (72 mg/dl) – thank all holy powers above, it was moving in the right direction!
By this point we were approaching landing, meaning I would have had to stow my hand luggage again. My husband kindly said that this wasn’t an option, and asked if they could re-seat us somewhere where I could keep my things right by m, in case things got ugly again.
Being a fully booked flight, the only option to re-seat us was in business class. I clearly didn’t care anymore at this point, I just wanted to land and get home to shower, have a hot tea and sleep. The other people in business class weren’t quite as understanding…
The last 20 minutes of the flight I got to sit in business class, which I had never done before. So, in order to lighten the mood, you could say diabetes got me upgraded for free. 🙂
Having buckled up for landing, I checked my blood sugar again. Seriously, my poor fingers. Anyway, it was 5.5 mmol/l (99 mg/dl) and I could finally breathe. Long, deep, oxygen filled breaths, which I hadn’t taken for the past hour or so.
Despite all the glucose and carbs I had had throughout this horror-hour, my blood sugar didn’t start to go up again until after leaving the plane. And it never went higher than 9.5 mmol/l (171 mg/dl), which was remarkable for that amount of carbs, which is guesstimated to be around the 60-80 gram mark.
My husband led me out from the plane on shaky legs, thanking the flight attendants for their amazing help and asking me if I was ok and if he should get me a wheel chair. Being mortified at the fact that diabetes caused me a scene, I told him I’d rather crawl to the exit than get in a wheel chair.
Getting home had never felt so good. Home where I was safe, and where I had Glucagon kits if I needed them. The day after was awful, I had the biggest hypo-hangover I’ve ever experienced, I was pretty much useless all day.
So, what’s my lesson in all this?
Even though everything turned out ok in the end this time, doesn’t mean it always will. I can’t even fly with active insulin from a previous meal, it has to be off. Completely. Also, always bring your own Glucagon. Airplanes don’t have them.
So, in light of this, let me share my 5 best traveling with diabetes tips with you:
- Figure out how YOU (and your blood sugar) react to air travel. Do you go high or low? Test, test, test and correct accordingly, either with food or with insulin.
- Wear something medical alert-y, whether that’s a piece of jewelry or a tattoo.
- Bring more supplies than you’d ever need for the same amount of time at home. It’s better to bring too much and not end up in the dark forests of Sweden without enough insulin… This includes hypo treatment. Bring L O T S of that. You just never know.
- Check your blood sugar more often. Is it going up or down? (This is especially where a CGM is truly worth its worth in gold (as they don’t weigh much…))
- Choose the pat down at security checks that use full body scanners (especially if you’re wearing medical equipment such as an insulin pump or CGM. You won’t get a new one if the scan damages your equipment.)
Although diabetes sometimes needs extra precautions before you set off, I would never ever stop flying and traveling. It’s one of the most amazing things in life, and all the extra work is worth it. You just need to find out how to counter-act it.
I would love to hear your travel tips, with or without diabetes – how do you make sure you stay healthy and well during travel?