This article was previously published in Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Health & Chronic Illness Abroad.
How to manage a chronic condition or illness while abroad
While my chronic condition and yours can be very different, there is one thing we probably have in common: we’ve gone through the ups and downs of learning to adapt to keep our lives as “normal” as possible regardless of our illness.
When I was 18 and diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, I didn’t take it very seriously. Sure, the symptoms sucked at first and figuring out exactly what was wrong with me was a pain, but once I stabilized on my medication, the disease floated to the back of my mind, only resurfacing when I had mild flare-ups of symptoms again. I told myself I would face this illness when I was older and “had more time.”
When I was 21 and my diagnosis prevented me from fulfilling my dream of joining the Peace Corps, I was devastated. Now, I saw my chronic condition as stupid, trivial, and unfair. I was told I had a small chance of serving in Eastern Europe, but my heart was set on South America or Africa. After three months studying and volunteering in South Africa, and one week volunteering in Guatemala, I never thought my medical condition would hinder my travels abroad.
Flash forward to 2017, and I’m living as a volunteer in India, a developing country I consider my second home.
So, to answer the question, “Can you volunteer and travel with a chronic condition?” I respond with a resounding: YES! You can travel while sick — many people have, and many people will.
Will you sometimes be told “no?” Will you have to take extra precautions? Will you need to prepare even more for those just-in-case emergencies? And, will there be days on the road you really, really wish you didn’t have a chronic illness or were traveling while sick? You bet.
Now that you know you can do it, the next step is to prepare yourself physically and mentally so you can arrive and put your focus where it belongs — on the beneficiaries of the project. Here's everything you know to know to volunteer and travel with sickness.
Why Would a Volunteer Project Say No to Me?
Sometimes, even when you think you have your chronic condition under control, a volunteer project may not be able to accept you. This was my exact case. I was taking medication daily, I was managing the occasional arthritic aches, and I hadn’t had a full-blown, can’t-walk-up-the-stairs-flare-up in three years.
Do not get discouraged if something similar happens to you! If you are FOR SURE the exact program and project you’ve applied for is what you want to do, there are always extra efforts you can take to appeal the decision, especially if your doctor or an additional specialist can vouch for you.
If you aren’t attached to one specific project or organization (say, the Peace Corps), then there are a multitude of programs in developing countries to look through and choose from. Programs with shorter durations or in locations with adequate medical facilities will be better equipped to take on volunteers with different medical concerns.
How do I choose a volunteer program that will work for me and my chronic condition?
If you want to travel while sick for four weeks or less, you should get the green light in pretty much any developing country as long as your condition and symptoms are stable. Since meds come in monthly dosages, you’ll be able to carry what you need, bring enough suitable snacks, or whatever else it may be that you need to sustain yourself.
If you are thinking of a few months to a year long trip, then you have different factors to consider. For example, are there certain environmental and living conditions that are more suitable to your condition? If so, then find a program that, for the most part, fits.
Countries like China or India may not be the best matches for volunteers with asthma or an inflammatory bowel disease. But, if crossing them off your list gives you sad eyes, just look for programs that offer weekend trips to big cities with most of the work in less polluted towns or that have accommodation with filtered water and home-cooked meals.
You may need to be a little flexible to find a volunteer program that fills all your requirements, but with the sheer number of volunteer programs out there, I’m sure it exists.
How do I make sure I'm prepared as a volunteer and ready to travel while sick?
It can be nerve wrecking for anybody to think about health care services while abroad, let alone someone with a chronic condition. Luckily there is a lot you can do ahead of time to thoroughly prepare yourself so you can put your mind at ease.
Once you’ve done a quick self-check in and asked yourself if you’re really ready to be an international volunteer, applied for your program, and run all the way through your pre-departure plan, remember these few extra steps to make sure your stint volunteering is a success:
Talk to program staff. Let them know any requirements you have, and also assure them that you will be responsible in taking care of your health. It will benefit both you and them to identify in advance any potential risks and what you would need to do should a medical concern arise. They will also be able to give you more information on the type of healthcare options you will have in your host country.
Take the necessary health precautions. These can include vaccinations, malaria medication, anti-diarrhea kits, sterile medical travel equipment, OTC meds, sunblock, bug spray, and hand sanitizer. Just ensure the vaccines and medications are suitable for you. Traveling while sick never meant traveling without extra precautions!
Take care of yourself. Those final weeks leading up to your big trip abroad are also crucial for keeping you healthy. Your body will go through an adjustment period those first few days, so you want to arrive strong and ready to withstand the transition.
And no matter where you go, BUY TRAVEL HEALTH INSURANCE!
How can I ensure I'm an awesome volunteer?
You’re work isn’t done now that you’ve arrived. If you want to be the best darn volunteer the program has ever seen (or if you simply want to last the full 6 months), you aren’t going to want the illness to get in your way!
Set an alarm. Even if you’ve never needed a reminder before, a volunteer’s schedule can make it pretty difficult to remember to take your meds before crashing on the bed after a long day.
Talk with project leaders. Maybe the information you gave to the pre-departure program staff made its way to the on-site staff, but maybe it didn’t. There’s no harm in confirming that the people who will see you daily are in the know.
Locate a pharmacy. It might take a while to find a pharmacy that carries the drug you are looking for. Do the search before you actually need the refill, write down the names of your medications in the local language (your new friends might be able to help you translate), and be patient as you collaborate with a new person in a new experience to get the meds you need.
Don’t skimp on sleep. I’m sure many of you can see the difference in your symptoms after a couple of nights with little sleep. Make it a priority. The kids, animals, co-volunteers, and anyone or thing you are working with will thank you — set boundaries to ensure that even if you are traveling while sick, you'll have the energy to support the work needing to be done.
Be free...while staying conscious. There is something about volunteering in developing countries that is freeing. Maybe it’s not having cell phone service or a TV to distract you, or the way you see people truly appreciating life. It can be easy to get swept up in all the feels you got going on. Go ahead and let loose, but don’t lose sight of what staying healthy entails for YOU.
Be honest. If something physically or mentally isn’t feeling right, don’t just push it aside. Ask for time to take a rest or grab a drink of water while you make sure it’s not a worse symptom on its way. If you need a full day “off” – don’t be afraid to ask for that either. Be honest with yourself and with others.
At the end of the day…
You (and your doctor) are going to be the best judge on how ready you are to volunteer in a developing country and all that you will need to do in order to properly prepare. The best advice I can possible give is to truly understand YOUR chronic condition, not just what WebMD and Google understands for you.
Know your triggers, your symptoms, the feelings you get before a flare-up occurs, the unexplainable ways you’ve figured out to quiet your symptoms down. Become as much of an expert as you can on yourself, so you know when you can keep pushing and when you need to accept a helping hand.
I’ve learned how to better manage my illness while I’ve been volunteering in India more than I ever did back home. Maybe it’s the additional motivation to maintain the energy I need to volunteer with the children, or maybe it’s the fact that the people I work with encourage me to take the time I need to rest and rejuvenate more so than their American counterparts.
Go ahead and use your first trip as a short-term test run. See how your body responds. Learn what best supports you while traveling, as well as what developing countries can and cannot offer.
There will always be people that don’t understand why you choose to put yourself in an area that could be risky for your health, “just” to volunteer. But we know better. You aren’t just volunteering. You’re growing culturally, you’re making a difference, and you’re inspiring the next generation of international volunteers and humanitarians. And no chronic condition, or naysayer, is going to stop that.
Read this and more inspiring tales of traveling with a chronic condition by downloading Meaningful Travel Tips and Tales: Health & Chronic Illness Abroad.