Last week I attended a the three-day orientation in Washington, D.C. hosted by the organization giving me a scholarship to go to Estonia. One of the things I learned was that I need this disclaimer on future posts concerning the grant:

The views and information presented here are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.

And now…on to diabetes.

The purpose of the orientation was to prepare all of the grantees for the experience of living abroad next year. We had information sessions on medical insurance, the administration of the program, and the histories and cultures of our respective host countries. I was excited to be able to meet the other grantees going to Estonia next year. Two alumni who had just returned from their year in Estonia were also there, and gave us dozens of tips about living in the country.

For most grantees, the preparation at the orientation was theoretical. In my case, the orientation inadvertently provided some hands-on practice for living abroad with diabetes. During the three days I spent in D.C., I had a small taste of the challenges I’ll have to deal with when I’m much farther away from home–as much of a taste as it’s possible to have in a nice hotel with a very helpful staff.

Of course, a major difficulty was maintaining good blood sugar levels. As every diabetic knows, it’s hard to count carbs when you’re away from home, eating unfamiliar food, and resorting to estimates rather than measurement. (At least I recognized the foods I was being served….this might not always be the case in Estonia!) Since my total movement consisted of walking from my room to the elevator, and from the elevator to a conference room, I was also getting much less exercise than I do normally. My blood sugar was high for most of the trip. Still, I was glad that I avoided having any serious lows, which would have been a greater cause for immediate fear.

An unexpected diabetes-related situation arose soon after I had arrived at the hotel. When I had signed up for the orientation, I had requested a refrigerator in my hotel room for my insulin. After I checked in at the hotel, I went up to my room and met my roommate, another grantee. We chatted for a while, then we unpacked and ironed our clothes. It wasn’t until we were finished that I decided to put my insulin into the refrigerator–and realized that the refrigerator was nowhere to be found.

In a way, I wasn’t too surprised. There were more than a hundred people in our group, and several more groups in the hotel. It understandable that the staff couldn’t keep track of each and every one of the guests’ requests. I also wasn’t too worried; I assumed it would be easy to have a refrigerator brought up to my room right then. When I went down to reception, however, a staff member told me that refrigerators couldn’t be brought up to certain rooms. Without elaborating as to the reason why this was the case, he added: “If we can’t move a fridge to your room, we’ll have to move both you and your roommate to a different room where there’s already a refrigerator.” I wouldn’t have minded switching rooms, but it seemed unfair to drag my roommate along with me.

The staff member promised to call me once he found out about the refrigerator one way or another. When I hadn’t heard from him by the time I was ready to go out to dinner, I decided to go back to reception and ask again. I felt hesitant about doing this. Having worked in retail, I know how irritating a pushy customer can be. Still, I was worried about my insulin, and I figured that if my roommate had to switch rooms, it would be best for her to know sooner rather than later. On the second trip to reception, I spoke to a different staff member who explained that there was a shortage of refrigerators because so many people had been asking for them. “But,” he added, “since you have special needs, I’m sure we’ll be able to work something out.” When I returned to my room after dinner, a refrigerator had been placed under the desk.

This incident was minor, but it reminded me that I’ll need to keep several things to keep in mind when traveling. First, prepare ahead–and never be complacent about those preparations. Instead of waiting until the last minute to ensure my room had a refrigerator, I should have called earlier that day to remind the staff that I would need one. Then I should have checked to see if it was in my room as soon as I arrived at the hotel. I also shouldn’t have assumed that a refrigerator would be readily available. Unforeseen complications happen all the time, and a diabetic can’t afford to take risks when trying to obtain necessary equipment. The importance of being vocal and assertive about diabetes was also underscored for me. If I hadn’t been persistent and asked for a refrigerator a second time, the hotel staff might have forgotten I’d ever requested one. If I hadn’t explained that I was diabetic and needed the refrigerator specifically to store my insulin, the second staff member wouldn’t have thought to prioritize my request.

I’ve already acted on the lessons I learned at orientation and made some concrete preparations for managing diabetes in Estonia. My program put me in touch with the nurse at the U.S. embassy in Estonia, who has give me specific information about insulin availability in Estonia, as well as the contact information for a endocrinologist in the city in which I’ll be living. I know that situations will arise in Estonia for which I haven’t prepared…but at least I’ll do my best to prepare for the ones I can foresee.

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