As a college student with Crohn’s disease (CD), the prospect of studying abroad can be both very exciting and very scary. Sometimes it can be helpful to hear firsthand advice from people who have done it. That’s why I’ve enlisted the help of students with Crohn’s who have traveled abroad to share with you their words of wisdom. Chrissy, Emily, and Leslie have all traveled abroad for an extended period of time and now they offer some advice on how you can make your aspirations of studying abroad come true. (Read more about studying abroad with Crohn’s in the Winter 2011 issue of Crohn’sAdvocate magazine.)
Establish your Crohn's disease support
Studying abroad during college can be a wonderful and life-changing experience for many, and Crohn’s does not exclude you from this opportunity. As someone with Crohn’s disease myself, I am all too aware that sometimes it can be exhausting just stepping out the front door, let alone traveling to another country. With this in mind, Leslie and Emily agreed that putting a support system in place is especially important when traveling abroad. When you’re abroad you may be faced with new daily challenges, since you’re living in a different environment and culture. By communicating openly with your peers abroad, you can find a group of friends who understand the difficulties that people living with Crohn’s face. And don’t be afraid to tell your host family or host institution about your condition. They may be able to help you plan, even if it’s something as simple as directing you to local health facilities. Establishing a strong support network wherever you are is an important step towards creating a safe, healthy environment.
Prepare for your needs
Plan your logistics for a wonderful time abroad. Try to foresee issues and needs related to Crohn’s that you might have while away and plan for a way to deal with them. Emily recalls, "One difficulty I had was that I knew I’d live with a host family and wouldn’t always have much say in what there was to eat." Emily took this message to heart and planned ahead in case she couldn’t always find the right food to eat. Chrissy similarly took precautionary steps and brought lots of protein bars with her to Morocco, as she was unsure of when she would find something safe for her to eat.
Adjust your expectations
Part of your planning must also include the possibility that your first choice may not always work out. However, it’s important to think positively, since this may provide you with other opportunities you weren’t expecting. For example, Chrissy decided not to study abroad as an undergrad. Instead, she chose to be a resident assistant in her dorm, an experience that now she wouldn’t trade for anything. In that time, Chrissy helped underclassmen with the many unexpected obstacles they faced when first away from home. She learned to give them good advice that she would later put to use herself—when she had the chance to study abroad in graduate school. This time she took it. It just goes to show that sometimes you can find opportunities and realize your goals in unexpected ways.
Get the doctor’s okay
Traveling abroad for an extended period of time will require you to be realistic about your Crohn's medical needs. First and foremost, you should only consider studying abroad if your Crohn’s symptoms are well managed. To make sure, discuss with your physician the current feasibility of your traveling. If your doctor says it’s okay, ask him or her for a list of physicians in the city you want to visit, and contact your health insurance company about coverage rules while you are away. Work with your doctor to develop a plan of action in case your Crohn’s symptoms worsen while you are away. Making the right preparations can reduce your anxiety about leaving, since you’re taking the steps to protect yourself in advance.
Make plans for your treatment regimen
Some Crohn's medications can’t be taken with you during travel, which will be a big consideration in your planning. If you learn that your medication can’t travel with you, connect with a physician or clinic at your destination before you leave, and discuss how to proceed with your treatment regimen. Because you want to be prepared for any and all possibilities, keep your doctor’s phone number and health insurance card with you in your wallet. Chrissy had the smart suggestion to make a copy of this card, also including other important information like allergies and emergency contact numbers, and give it to a friend with whom you are traveling. Before you leave, ask your physician to give you a written summary of your medical history and current medications. And as always, bring written copies of your prescriptions with you.
Taking these steps will help you avoid a dangerous situation away from home and stay well enough to enjoy your time abroad.
Stick with what works
Being in a strange place with unfamiliar people can make us forget our old routines. But remember that the techniques you use to take care of yourself at home will serve you just as well during your time abroad. It may be even more important to keep them in mind when going abroad, as your whole routine will be changing. So remember to integrate those methods into your new routine for living with Crohn’s as it forms. Consider making a list, maybe in partnership with your parents and friends, to help remind yourself of the ways you used to take care of yourself at home when your Crohn’s symptoms were getting you down. Adapting your familiar methods of symptom- or stress-management to your new lifestyle will help you stay grounded in an unfamiliar place, while strengthening your overall ability to manage your disease. With the right preparations, you can adapt to any new situation.
As Chrissy says, "Living with Crohn's and making your goals happen isn’t just normal—it's fairly extraordinary."