Studying Abroad in China with Diabetes
With a deep-fried scorpion staring at me from the end of my chopsticks, I couldn't help but think how this delicacy in China would stump even my best diabetes doctors in the United States. How much insulin does my body require for a scorpion?!
But without further hesitation, I decided to go for it and try to eat this creature whose biological design seemed to be speaking volumes to me: BEWARE! Insects with pinchers are not designed to be consumed. Fortunately, it didn't bite or pinch my tongue, and whatever dosage of insulin I'd guessed upon seemed to be correct, as I'm still here to tell the tale.
It's experiences such as these that forever changed my life, when I spent a semester studying Chinese at the Beijing Normal University's College of Foreign Languages through CET Academic Programs. And it's experiences such as these that I hope all college students can have at least once during their careers.
I was elated to receive a letter from the National Security Education Program (NSEP) Boren Scholarship organization, notifying me that I had been granted funding for a full year of study in China. My elation was short-lived, however, as just one week later I was diagnosed with type I, insulin-dependent diabetes and was suddenly forced to contend with all of the physical and emotional changes such a diagnosis would mean.
Originally, my doctors told me that living and studying in China would not be in my best interest. I understood that I would not be ready to leave home by September of that year, as it was going to be necessary to adjust myself medically to the new routine of daily injections and blood sugar testing, as well as to the psychological ramifications of coping with a chronic disease. Fortunately, I have a very supportive family and I was persistent enough that I was able to convince my medical team to allow me to spend the spring semester studying in China. And so, in January of 1995, I set off for Beijing with an extra suitcase packed specifically with double the supply of medications I would need for my four months abroad (just to be safe).
My particular program was one of the first of its kind to allow American students to share a dormitory room with Chinese students. This was a key selling point for me, as I wanted to experience as much of the culture as possible, and up to that point, homestays in China were not allowed. Living with a Chinese roommate posed an interesting challenge that I had not anticipated. To put her mind at ease when she saw all of my syringes, insulin vials, glucometer, etc., I had to quickly come up with a way of explaining, in broken English and Chinese, exactly what "type I diabetes" means and how I treated it.
Eventually, we were able to have great discussions about the differences in medical treatments (traditional Eastern medicine vs. Western medical practices). While improvements are constantly being made to the Chinese health care system, I was sorry to learn that due to a lack of resources, diabetes remains relatively untreated in China even to this day. Most individuals, upon diagnosis, are simply told what they can and cannot eat and may supplement their diet with acupuncture. For a type I diabetic who requires daily injections of insulin to stay alive, this regimen simply doesn't work. Sadly, in China life expectancy after diagnosis may only be as much as 5-10 years. I consider myself extremely lucky to have had such a wonderful roommate who not only shared her perspectives with me, but who enjoyed learning more about how I am able to treat my diabetes.
As a result of my semester abroad, I am convinced that with plenty of preparation and attention to one's health, almost any individual with the proper determination can have a successful experience overseas that will undoubtedly translate into a multitude of positive results. While it was definitely a challenge trying to juggle all of my medical needs and the standard culture shock issues, I know that my experience in China was one of the best and most defining experiences of my life. I returned from China convinced that every individual should be given the opportunity to study and/or live abroad. I was also determined to find a way to help diabetics in China who simply do not have access to the necessary treatment and medications that I take for granted, and for whom a diagnosis of diabetes can mean early death.
Since returning from that semester abroad, I have led groups of students on study programs in Mexico, Nepal, Russia, and even back to China. I have also traveled independently to Argentina, United Kingdom, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Norway and Thailand. Each country has posed its own challenges when it comes to gaining access to medications and adjusting for different cuisines, but the experiences I had during that first semester in China prepared me for these challenges.
I now work with a juvenile diabetes organization, and previously I traveled across the Rocky Mountain region as a program representative for the Center for Education Abroad at Arcadia University, advising college students of the many benefits of studying abroad. At the same time, I encourage students with disabilities and chronic health conditions to consider their options for overseas study by volunteering to talk with other diabetic students.
Additionally, in an effort to raise awareness of the needs of diabetics in less developed regions of the world and to provide some form of assistance to those individuals, I have also become part of a nonprofit volunteer organization composed of type I diabetic mountaineers, IDEA 2000, Inc. Through a successful ascent to the summit of the highest peak in the western hemisphere (Cerro Aconcagua in Argentina) in January 2001, where we lived at or above 14,000 feet for one month, the group was able to raise over $75,000 for Latin American aid organizations providing education and supplies to the region's diabetic communities. The group has also proven that with adequate preparation and training, diabetes does not have to stand in the way of achieving one's dreams.
Undoubtedly, the China semester was one of the most significant periods of time in my life. It was a mix of good and bad news that ultimately played out to be a defining feature in both my personal and career lives. I firmly believe that studying abroad is a life-enriching experience. I also feel that students with disabilities or chronic conditions have the added benefit of learning just how differently cultures address health needs. They can therefore potentially develop an added layer of compassion for those individuals faced with the same conditions who lack adequate resources to maintain their health, and they can learn a new way of handling an existing medical condition when they get home.
I encourage anyone considering studying or living abroad to not let a disability or chronic condition stand in the way. With adequate preparation and support from doctors, family, friends, and advisors, studying abroad can indeed become a reality and bring as many positive changes to your life as they have to mine.
IDEA 2000, Inc. is a non-profit charitable
organization with the overall mission of promoting better health for
IDEA 2000, Inc.
National Security Education Program provides scholarship and fellowship funding for U.S. undergraduate and graduate students who wish to study in the field of international affairs and national security. Recipients use the funding for participation in a qualifying study abroad program. Certain sites are excluded from this program, including Western Europe, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.