Zak Brown (Diabetes Week 2020): Type 1, Travel, Teaching & TDFC

I have been fortunate enough to experience living and travelling in many countries in the last 10 years since graduating from University. For anybody that is thinking of travelling, or moving to another country, you may find some of the experiences I am about to share useful. I must also stress that I am in no way a medical professional and any advice I give is purely based on my own opinions and experiences! Of course, the subject of football/futsal will feature too being a TDFC post…

As I prepared to embark on my teaching career, I took an opportunity to travel in the 8 months I had available before starting my Post-Graduate Certificate in Education. Thailand became my first choice of destination, as I saw a company offering a week-long introduction in Bangkok and a guaranteed job teaching English as a foreign language. I had also pre-arranged a spot on a summer camp in New York to do in the summer, so my plans were in place… Thailand January-April and USA May-August, then PGCE from September onwards.

Because I knew I was in Thailand for a set amount of time, I arranged a large prescription with my GP and got all the necessary jabs before travelling, which was a smooth and painless process. However, when it came to packing my backpack, I soon realised that my diabetes supplies were taking up about 75% of the space in my 65L backpack! So a tip from me is to remove as much packaging as you can – for example putting needles in a plastic wallet, as opposed to keeping them in their bulky box. That way, you still have a few clothes to be able to wear on your travels!

I could quite easily do a separate blog for each trip that I have done, but I will try to keep things brief. Thailand exceeded my expectations in every way possible and I was so reluctant to leave when it got to the end of April, but I knew I had the summer camp experience in USA to look forward to next.

Lessons learnt from Thailand regarding my type 1 diabetes… Humidity can definitely have an impact on blood glucose levels and because of the amazing street food culture in Thailand, it is much more difficult to count carbohydrates from something that is made freshly in front of you without any packaging to look at. Due to the heat and humidity, I found that even just putting a couple of units of insulin in for each meal would regulate my sugars pretty effectively. One benefit to the street food culture is that you’re never too far away from a hypo treatment! The other major challenge that I faced is not having a fridge in the apartment I was living in, so I just kept my insulin in the coolest, darkest place. The insulin still worked, but of course I keep it in the fridge whenever possible based on medical advice! The point here is that there are ways to adapt, even if everything isn’t how it usually is in the comfort of your own home or country.

Getting a waterproof bag is another piece of advice I would give – when you are going scuba diving or snorkeling you can be safe in the knowledge that your testing kit or electrical supplies won’t be flooded! They are cheap to buy in the street markets of Thailand too. Another reason why you’d need a waterproof bag is for Songkran – The festival to celebrate the Thai New Year. Held around mid-April, it consists of huge water fights through day and partying by night.

Picture 1

A three-week transition period at home allowed me to order another large prescription for the supplies I would need in America and prepare my J1 visa which involved a day-trip to Belfast and back from Manchester. I was stoked when I arrived on camp to find another type 1 diabetic staying in the same bunk as me! Cole was from Pennsylvania and was in the circus department. He could do some unbelievable tricks juggling balls, batons and even knives. You could say it’s a nice metaphor for juggling his type 1 diabetes!

Picture 2

In the midst of making memories during my travels, I made a big decision to postpone my place on the PGCE course I was due to start in September. I was loving life so much, that I wanted to experience more travel before settling down into a teaching career. Fortunately, the experiences in Thailand and USA were not at a detriment to my career and had actually provided some valuable teaching and coaching experiences outside my comfort zone. My sights were now on Australia, so I saved up working at my former Secondary School. Much of the preparation for the move to Australia was the same, cleverly squeezing my diabetes supplies into my backpack, leaving enough room for clothes.

However, the move to Sydney was more of a long-term one. I had no return date and was open to the idea of becoming a permanent resident if the Aussie lifestyle was too good to leave. That almost became a reality and I spent over 3 great years there. Joining a football team was an easy way to make new friends shortly after I arrived. I played for two different football teams over there, with the latter probably being my overall favourite experience being a part of a football club. Not only did we win the premier league that season and make the final 4 teams in the state of New South Wales, everyone in the team got on so well and I have never felt more comfortable being a diabetic in the changing rooms (other than TDFC where we are all diabetic!). In fact, 5 minutes before our grand final was about to start, I came down with a hypo and had used all the sugar I had brought with me. Luckily, a team-mate quickly grabbed some sweets and I was just about good to go when the whistle went for kick-off. That small gesture meant that I could play the full game, winning 3-0 and be given Man of the Match.

I first came into contact with Chris Bright from TDFC whilst out in Sydney. Having seen a Facebook post stating that they were on the lookout for players to represent United Kingdom at DiaEuro, I was determined to grab that opportunity! Having represented UK at the Junior Diabetes Cup in 2009/10, I understood how great the experience was to represent country and condition – and knowing that everybody on that field goes through the same challenges as me every day.

Not being able to train with TDFC back home in the build up wasn’t ideal, but luckily I was playing futsal on a regular basis by this point. A friend of mine in Sydney, Shane Watson knows just about everyone and everything futsal related in Sydney. From our football connections, we had a team of friends competing in leagues and tournaments. Although futsal is now really taking off in the UK, many of the TDFC team hadn’t played much futsal by the time we arrived in Bratislava 2018. Details of how that tournament went are in a previous blog here.

Picture 5 DiaEuro

Flying back home to play in DiaEuro is worth it for so many reasons for me. Playing in a futsal competition with elite players, sharing knowledge and experience around managing type 1 diabetes with team-mates, having access to the latest diabetes technology through our sponsors Dexcom and of course seeing my family and friends!

Back to the travelling aspect of living with type 1… It was straightforward for me to access my diabetes supplies at a reasonable cost in Australia. They have a National Diabetes Service Scheme (NDSS) allowing access to diabetes supplies at reduced costs. Insulin was prescribed through my registered GP in Sydney and it would cost me around $40 for a 6 month supply of insulin. Taking into account that I use two types of insulin and go through a 50 box of test strips per week, it would cost me around $500 per year for my diabetes supplies. Whenever I did return to the UK, I would get a large prescription of supplies to take back out with me and would be lucky to have the Dexcom G6 to use from DiaEuro too. Australia has a reciprocal healthcare agreement with UK, so I would encourage anyone who works over there to register for Medicare, which is open for everyone, not just type 1 diabetics.

Picture 6 Aussie Card

I am now living in Wellington, New Zealand. Things here are a little more difficult as a type 1, as there is only one brand of test strips that are funded, so I have changed testing kits for the first time in over 10 years! Due to my visa status, I don’t currently get reduced costs for my test strips or insulin, so I would estimate that it costs around $2000 for my diabetes supplies here annually until I get permanent residency – then the costs would go right down to less than $200 for the year. Due to covid-19, I won’t be going home this year and DiaEuro is also postponed, so I am just taking the financial hit on the chin and I’m looking forward to the day where I can say I am a permanent resident of New Zealand!

All of this makes me realise how lucky we are to have the NHS in the UK – as citizens of so many other countries around the world face the added financial cost of living with type 1 diabetes.

However, to finish on a positive note, there is no reason why you cannot travel the world living with type 1! A little extra preparation and organisation can go a long way. I am currently watching Race Across The World on TV, which features one contestant with type 1 diabetes and it’s great to see somebody else showing that diabetes will not stop us!

If anybody has any questions about travelling or moving countries, I would be happy to help and chat further. Feel free to e-mail me at zakdlbrown@gmail.com

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