Traveling the world has never been a goal for me, but I'm ever-impressed by those brave enough to embark on great adventures despite the challenges of type 1 diabetes.
That's why I've been captivated by one Australian type 1 named Matt Shanahan, who with his wife and three young girls began an 18-month backpacking trek from Australia to England earlier this year. Diagnosed a little over three years ago, Matt is the son of an adult-diagnosed type 1 and also has an uncle who was diagnosed as a kid.
He and his wife Mel have been blogging about their travels over at Two Roads -- a blog titled after the opening line of the Robert Frost poem 'The Road Not Taken' about two roads diverging. An appropriate literary reference for this family sojourn!
I've found their Traveling with Type 1 posts great reads, and today it's great to hear directly from Matt on how this all came together, how his diabetes factors in, and what he hopes to gain from this experience.
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A Guest Post by Matt Shanahan
I am a 40-year-old father of three amazing daughters ages 9, 7, and 5 and husband to one amazing wife Mel. Growing up on the coast in Sydney, I studied psychology then worked as an outdoor instructor with Outward Bound Australia for six years. Following that I moved into the corporate world facilitating leadership and team development programs. After several years working for others, I set up my own management consultancy, FiftyOneNorth, so I could dictate when and where I worked and to spend more time with the family.
Our permanent place of residency is just outside Melbourne, Australia, but at the moment we are in the early phases of an 18-month journey from Australia to England overland.
I would like to say that the trip began with one inspired late night conversation -- red wine spilled across a world map and wild dreams of mystical foreign lands. But it didn't. It was a slow-burning, long-held desire of mine to journey from one side of the planet to the other. Australia to England by car, arm out the window, music blaring, strange lands blurring past. Even getting married and having three daughters didn't crush the dream, it just changed it. So my wife Mel and I started talking, planning and putting the wheels in motion.
Then in October 2011, after weeks of actively ignoring the ominous signs of crushing thirst, weight loss and fatigue, I faced the dreaded diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. My uncle had had it since childhood and my father had just been diagnosed, so everything was chillingly familiar. I knew what was coming and I was afraid. After the diagnosis, as all of you reading this would know, everything changed.
I don't need to go into what happened next because again all of you would know it too well. The world you knew seems to disappear, everything is strange and uncertain. Nothing is stable, nothing makes sense. Even walking down the street seemed to involve fear and planning. What's my BGL? What have I eaten? How much insulin did I take for breakfast? Who knows where I am going?
If that is walking down the street, how the hell do I travel across the world for a year and a half? Traveling through developing countries, carrying all my insulin into places where a fridge is a luxury let alone a substantial, advanced health care system. That's also with my wife and responsibility for my three daughters.
The logical, safe thing to do was let that dream just slip away and assume the life that everyone seemed to tell me was my new fate: a life of regularity, order and caution.
I have always tried to tread a slightly less predictable path. Taking a year off after school to travel, working in a nursing home, studying psychology, working for six years as a wilderness guide and not taking a "proper job." Even taking the leap from a large corporate consulting company to start my own company so I could control my own life and spend more time with my family.
I have also always held a profound belief that you have one spin around on this planet and when it ends, it ends. So leave it better than you find it and along the way drink it dry of experiences. Those four years working as a nurse in a nursing home for full-care patients in their last precious months reinforced this belief. I can tell you now that no one I nursed, in their big summing up of life, wished they had done or seen LESS.
So we picked up the dream and pushed on with only one major change. No car but instead travelling by whatever means we can -- buses, trains, ferries. We reasoned that if something DID go wrong then we just get out as fast as we can. Leaving a car then recovering it later would be a costly and complicated exercise.
It's now been four months on the road. I'm writing this on the bus from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. My 5-year-old daughter already has more stamps on her passport than many adults I know. She moves through border crossings in steamy, dripping tropical heat likes she's just on her way to school. I have had more more irreplaceable time with my family than I could dream of and we are only a 5th of the way through the journey.
We are aiming to travel overland as much as possible but are not evangelical about not setting foot on a plane. So far, we have only flown Darwin to Dili, Lombok to Bali and then Jakarta to Singapore. The rest has been buses, ferries and trains. We are aiming for trains most of the way as we have had some horror bus trips so far and don't want to repeat them too often!
After weeks of trial and error, I am more confident with managing the diabetes in constantly shifting environments. But I went through periods of wild, erratic sugar levels -- times when I had no idea what was going on. One time my BGL even went as high as it was when I was first diagnosed.
The details, tips and techniques of how to manage the diabetes while traveling would take up an entire article... As to insulin regime, I haven't wanted to go to a pump yet so it's all manual. The actual taking of the insulin hasn't changed. Carrying the damn stuff is the hardest thing. We are traveling with a years' supply of insulin, test strips and needles, stuffed into cooler bags with re-freezable ice packs that we freeze every chance we get. At hostels we put it straight into the fridge. Also traveling with two Frio evaporative cooler bags in my day pack so if something goes really wrong with the ice cooler bags I have a month's supply of insulin which will sort me out until I can convince a local hospital I am diabetic and need some insulin.
In summary, I believe there are two approaches that have helped me no end:
First, go easy on myself and let go of control a little. Avoid the blame, self-doubt, or frustration that comes with losing some control over my sugar levels. While I am aware of the long term dangers of erratic BGL, I also know that it is a marathon. Slipping up a little for a while will not do the damage as long as I get things under control when I return.
Secondly, I try to see everything as a problem to be solved, not a barrier to an experience. So Mel and I never say, "we'd better not do that because of the diabetes." Rather we think, "what do we need to do in order to be safe doing that?" We're not reckless, but we're also not going to tip-toe across the world taking photos from the safety of a tour bus window.
We've had our scares and worries, but nothing scarier than getting to the end of life wishing you'd done more.
My hope with all this? That's a big one. In short, and probably in order of importance:
- For the girls to experience the world and open their eyes.
- For us a a family to have irreplaceable memories.
- To prove to myself that I can do it as a diabetic and that I can have a normal life.
I went to the World Diabetes Congress in Melbourne in 2013, and there was an opening session on diabetics who have completely defied the odds and done things that are challenging without diabetes -- mountaineers, astronauts, sailors, you name them. It was pretty profound to hear them talk, especially when I was still in the "always be safe" discovery mode after diagnosis. I suppose the more I understand the more I realize that many of a the clinicians and educators (as well-intentioned as they are) who try to help you don't really understand how to live with it and inadvertently send very limiting messages. I am not sure what my true message is yet, but when I return I wanted to just take a look at how we get more diabetics into mentoring roles for newly diagnosed diabetics. I have a father with T1, who is also a physician of internal medicine, who I could call at 2am with a worry or concern. I often wondered how people without that get through that first horrible six months.
So message to this point is just one about questioning convention and always being curious, and about seeing diabetes as a puzzle to be solved.