Hear from the founder of the Diabetic Travelers Network on how she deals with the unique challenges of regulating blood sugar when far from home.
Julie Kiefer, who is originally from Strasbourg, France, and is currently based in London, founded the Diabetic Travelers Network (DTN) in 2019. Julie, 27, lives with Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas becomes unable to produce the insulin needed to regulate blood sugar levels. Julie, who is an international brand manager and digital marketing coach in addition to running DTN, describes herself as a “fitness and nutrition addict,” and currently runs 4 times a week. She also loves to dance, listen to music, write, and learn about new technologies. An avid traveler since 2015, she’s visited more than 20 countries, and has lived in Australia, Indonesia and the United Kingdom.
Julie says: “I have a big vision that every diabetic, no matter where they are in the world, will be able to have access to the information, level of care, support and connections they need to travel and live without worry. No more keeping children from school trips, which happened to me as a child. No more stress at the airport, no more ‘I can’t do it’ attitude. [I want] a place where we empower each other to go further, better, together.”
Read on for Julie’s story in her own words, and her top travel tips.
In 1997, I was diagnosed as a type 1 diabetic. This not only robbed me of my childhood, it left me with a life where my abilities were determined by the judgment of others. My participation in school trips was repeatedly refused by teachers who judged my presence as a danger.
Several years later, my engineering studies led me to do a 6-month internship abroad. I didn’t hesitate for a second and decided to go to the furthest country possible: Australia.
At that time, I had never been on a plane for more than 4 hours, and I had never changed time zones. It’s interesting to see how some people always have something to say! I wasn’t just a woman going on a trip, which is already a no-go for some. I was a type 1 diabetic woman. There were so many reasons to dissuade me from going: it’s dangerous, what would I do if I had diabetes-related problems once I got there, and what would I do with my insulin if it could not be chilled? Would it still work? How was I going to keep it cool and carry it on the plane?
I have been asked these questions a lot. Insulin storage is one of the topics I get the most questions about. If you too have these questions, know that there are solutions. I advise you to leave with a portable cooler like this one and medical ice packs to keep it cool. For shorter trips, I use an insulated pouch like this one. Make sure you take ice packs for medical use to avoid having them confiscated by security.
If, like me, you have the misfortune of having your ice pack confiscated, be aware that large temperature variations are more likely to damage the action of the insulin than keeping it closed at room temperature. In addition, some airlines may place insulin in the plane’s refrigerator.
When I started thinking about going to Australia, I wasn’t sure how I would cope with my diabetes. To be honest, I had no idea. I did some research, A LOT of research. Because I knew I was going to have a fixed place to stay, I took 6 months of diabetes gear with me.
“Security stopped me at the airport”
When I flew to Australia, my suitcase and my portable cooler were full of diabetes supplies.
At the airport, security stopped me. Despite my arguments and the letter from my diabetologist, all my ice packs were confiscated, leaving my insulin at room temperature.
I was about to embark on a 24-hour trip, and I had to find a solution quickly.
I ended up using the chocolate ice cream from the meals served on the plane, which I placed in my cooler. 24 hours later, happy to have arrived in my new home, the ice cream had melted on the insulin packs, but kept it fresh and in good condition.
But it’s important to note that below 0°C, insulin becomes degraded and should not be placed in the hold of the plane. Large temperature fluctuations are more likely to damage the action of the insulin than keeping it closed at room temperature. Some airlines may place insulin in the aircraft’s fridge.
Julie’s travel tips for diabetics
Plan your trip
Organization is an important factor to consider when you want to travel safely and confidently with diabetes. Plan your trip a few months in advance to make sure you’re ready, and don’t miss anything on the day of departure. Book your plane tickets, hotels, excursions, and plan your meals. To avoid hypoglycemia, gather all the paperwork, the cooler and cooler bag ,and make sure you have enough diabetes supplies with you.
The more organized you are, the less you’ll have to worry about diabetes. This preparation is very useful not only when you’re traveling, but also in any situation, for example when you’re pressed for time and in a workplace situation.
Don’t hesitate to use tools like this checklist to make sure you don’t forget anything!
Double the quantities
Always bring more diabetes supplies than you need. Double the amount for the duration of your trip and ask your diabetologist to prescribe the correct amount.
Take out travel insurance and bring a letter from your diabetologist
Before you leave, it is important to purchase travel insurance that covers diabetes-related expenses and repatriation. Read the terms and conditions carefully. This will ensure that you are covered in case of a problem abroad.
Also, make sure you have a letter from your diabetologist and a prescription that clearly states that you need to keep your equipment with you. This is necessary to get through airport security and will help you if you need equipment abroad.
Keep your insulin and glucagon kit at the right temperature
Keep your insulin and glucagon kit cool by carrying it in an insulated bag or small cooler. Use medically certified ice packs; non-certified ice packs are not always accepted by airport security.
You’re already taking care of your diabetes. You know what to do in different situations, you’re getting organized, and now you have access to a community of diabetic travelers on the Diabetic Travelers Facebook group to support you. You can do it.
Here’s one easy exercise to reduce stress that you can do anywhere: Take a deep breath. Focus on breathing. Inhale on a count of to 6, hold for 2, exhale 8. Repeat until you feel calmer.
Traveling is an incredible experience. Having an experience that is out of the ordinary creates memories that will stay with you forever.
Get support with DTN
If you or someone you love has diabetes and wants to access the information, support and contacts they need to travel smarter, you can connect with Julie and DTN on many social platforms.
Disclaimer: The information in this article is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice from a physician or other healthcare professional and is not a substitute for the advice of a legally qualified healthcare professional. If you have specific medical questions, please consult your doctor or healthcare professional promptly. Nothing in this article should be construed as an attempt to offer or render medical advice.