Advice about studying abroad with an illness
I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism just before my year abroad began in early September. I had spent most of the summer lying inactive at home between blood tests, exhausted even by vacuuming and making endless packing lists on my laptop until my doctor was finally able to give me a prescription. Hypothyroidism means your body clock is running too slowly so you are always tired and cold and all your organs are not functioning as they should. It gets worse in times of change and stress, after drinking alcohol and in cold areas, so my doctor was not amused to find out I was going to live in St Petersburg, Russia, for four months.
My condition definitely made things harder for me when I was away. I spent a lot of time emotional, freezing, despairing at my dry hair and exhaustion. People thought it was strange that I largely stayed away from alcohol in a country where ordering a bottle of vodka ‘for the table’ at dinner is pretty standard and I had to fight hard against my exhaustion to go out in the snow and see the museums and art galleries that I wanted to. In the end I had a great time in Russia, helped massively by the support network I had when I was out there and the one back home. It can be very daunting needing medical care in a foreign country, especially over a prolonged period, but here is some advice to anyone in a similar situation:
1. Insurance - get some
If you’re in an EU country your EHIC should suffice but even then, some hospitals can make you pay directly and claim back later. It’s worth checking to see if you’re covered by your parents’ insurance through their job or bank account. My English-speaking insurance company put me through to a doctor on the phone, paid my medical costs directly and even arranged my appointment for me at the clinic and time of my choosing.
2. Medicine - bring it with you
If like me, your doctor is only allowed to prescribe a certain amount of your medicine, you can always ask a family member to post you your prescription, or buy some more while you’re there. It is best avoided in some cases – I had to buy Finnish thyroxine and then change to the English kind back in the UK which meant triple hormone readjustments. However, most medicines are readily available so it’s nothing to panic about.
3. Find a doctor
If you are a student abroad you should be able to talk to a rep or coordinator about the best local clinic or surgery. As your insurance (that you just got, when you followed step one) will likely be paying for a private practice, you shouldn’t have any nasty surprises regarding hygiene/general creepiness.
4. Don’t drink the tap water
Stay hydrated by all means, but this is just never a good idea.
5. Talk to a friend
However crappy you’re feeling, you’ll feel a lot worse if you don’t tell anyone about it. I’m not advocating blaming every bad mood on your illness, but it’s incredibly reassuring to explain yourself to someone who will remind you to take your pills or pick you up from your blood test. It may well end up that you don’t need their help, but it’s nice to have someone there to tell you you’re not being a baby.
6. Talk to a teacher
If your illness starts affecting your work, you should tell somebody. I felt completely misunderstood when my teachers seemed frustrated with me for zoning out and getting distracted in class, when I was trying my hardest to get on with my studies, or missing days because I couldn’t get out of bed. Once you explain, they’ll be able to make allowances for your apparently rude behaviour and let you focus on your work as best you can.
There’s a lot of pressure on students abroad to go out all the time and ‘make the most of it’, which means that when you’re feeling under the weather, it’s very easy to feel guilty for spending a day in bed. The best thing you can do is listen to your body and take time out when you need to before you do yourself some damage. Although the months can fly by, there’s still plenty of time to rearrange plans and watch some terrible local TV (and that still counts as language practice).
8. Get out and do stuff
As awesome as staying in with TV gems like ‘Funny Naked People’ is, it’s a lot easier to feel homesick and bored if you stay in all the time. Also, you’re going to need some interesting stories to justify your ‘year out’ to all your friends doing their dissertations at home. Make yourself do something low-key, like go to a bar or café with friends or a book and the change of surroundings will perk you up even if the coffee doesn’t (seriously don’t bother with the coffee in Russia, they do great tea). While you shouldn’t give in to pressure to do something you know will make you feel worse, you can be surprised by the great experiences you can have saying yes to a few invitations.
Above all, an illness doesn’t mean that your study abroad will be ruined or that you have to act like a bed-ridden invalid the whole time. As long as you ensure that you have access to paid-for medical care and you don’t push yourself too hard just to keep up, there’s no reason the experience should be any less amazing.