Twice in my life – once as an undergraduate student and once as a graduate student – I decided to voyage into unknown lands and study abroad. I am forever grateful that I did as these experiences were filled with art, food, culture, music, teachers, and friends that continue to inspire me. Going abroad with allergies is not necessarily simple, but is certainly worth the extra preparation.
I first traveled to London – a decision made by the lack of a language barrier. I could easily tell medical professionals my condition and they could read (and understand) my MedicAlert bracelet inscription. I also lived in a flat in London secured by the study abroad program which, unlike the dorm option, allowed me to prepare my own food and minimize known trigger exposure.
Seven years later, I traveled to Italy and did not have my own kitchen so was more prepared to share my condition with others. Of course, there was also the issue that I spoke no Italian beyond “ciao” and “Bellini”. So before I left, I translated “idiopathic anaphylaxis” for the medical professionals and made cards with the specific allergens I had for anyone handling my food. The customer service department of my health insurance provider was an incredibly helpful resource and facilitated all of the translations I needed. They also suggested very strong verbiage – as in “I will die if I eat shrimp” – to ensure no confusion or ambiguity.
For both study abroad programs, I researched the local hospitals of places I lived and traveled so that I always knew the location of the nearest hospital. This gave me peace of mind and the confidence to explore outside of the cities I was based. I also shared my condition with my traveling companions and sufficiently scared, I mean educated, them with a tutorial on EpiPen administering.
Perhaps the most important preparation I did was buy oodles of antihistamines and fill prescriptions for EpiPens in the States before I left. While I could avoid any known triggers, idiopathic anaphylaxis has no limits and frequent episodes will wipe you clean of your meds stash. By bringing plenty, I didn’t spend one minute hunting down Benadryl instead of staring up at David.
While my study abroad days may be behind me, I am confident my international travel is not. So ….”Hello customer service? How do you say ‘mustard’ in French?”