Tina’s Type One & Studying Abroad – by Tina Mallia

Back in April 2018, after a long day at university, I went home to find a letter of acceptance to study abroad on an Erasmus programme. Erasmus allows students to study in another European country for a couple of months – I had applied to study in Scotland for around five months, and as ecstatic as it felt to be chosen for such a programme, I was also petrified of moving to a new country, somewhat far away from home. 

My fear was amplified when I remembered that I would be living alone with diabetes. For any other university student this may be a normal occurrence, but for students in Malta, for the most part, we tend to live at home with our parents until we graduate. With that being said, I was lucky to always have my parents help me keep tabs of my diabetes management especially during stressful periods, sometimes even have them noticing hypoglycaemic symptoms before I even notice them myself. Doubts and concerns started to pop up in my head:

“What if I get a severe hypo or hyperglycaemia and no one will notice?”

“What if the UK does not use the same types of medicine as we do?”

“How will I be able to keep everything in check?”

These types of thoughts overwhelmed me to a point where I even considered not going up to Scotland. However, the thought of countless people worldwide successfully living alone with diabetes, and knowing that one day or another I would require to do so myself, consoled me. Furthermore, studying abroad was something I always wanted to experience and did not want to pass up on such an opportunity, simply because of a fear, which either way I would have to face in the near future. Despite saying I was living alone, I did have a friend coming up with me, to which we made it a point that we would live next door to each other. Knowing all this and having her support really encouraged me to take the leap. Needless to say, a lot of research commenced – especially regarding the healthcare system in the U.K. 

Here in Malta, we are given free healthcare services, diabetes supplies, and medicine, however this excludes CGMs and insulin pumps. These tools have not yet been fully introduced in Malta. However, through elaborate methods and hefty prices, some Maltese pay out of pocket for the use of CGMs. Knowing that the U.K. has better access to such diabetes technologies and having easier access to them made me feel more secure about spending a few months there.

Despite some slight differences in the type of healthcare supplies available in the U.K., the research I did around the National Healthcare System (NHS) truly put my mind at ease. I made a plan with my local endocrinologist to take enough medicine with me in case of differences in the brands available in the U.K. and to also assure myself that I have the full supply I require. Before leaving, I gave a briefing about diabetes to the friend who travelled with me so that she could fully understand what diabetes is and how to help me during a hypo or hyperglycaemic episode, if need be. This made both of us feel secure and prepared for the unexpected.

On January 5th 2019, we set off on one of the most unforgettable experiences I have ever had. I was positively surprised with the NHS, as although I heard various excellent reviews about them, I did not expect such efficiency with their system. Shortly after I applied for free medical services with my student eligibility, I was immediately called in for various check-ups like eye screening and vascular review. Although I had these services in Malta, I did not expect such services for a temporary resident there and with such short wait times!

However, my diabetes management there was not all plain sailing, especially due to the fact that I was in a new place, leading a different lifestyle, and adopting new eating habits. In Malta, I was used to getting around by cars and buses, while in Scotland I was walking to most places on a daily basis. The stress of moving to a new place and the usual stress from university also did not positively affect my diabetes management. To add onto this, I was frequently experiencing hypos at night, so much so that at one point I was no longer feeling hypos during my sleep. With thanks from the support I was getting from my local endocrinologist and diabetes nurse specialists, I was able to sort this issue out, amongst a few other issues that I was facing whilst living there.

I am grateful I was able to experience living independently in an entirely new country, meeting some of the most wonderful people from all around the world, and most importantly, doing what I love the most: travelling. I am thankful for all the encouragement I received from my family and friends, and also from my doctors and specialists who pushed me and gave me heart to not let such an opportunity pass by simply because of my diabetes. The most prominent lesson I learnt from this experience is that my diabetes should not dishearten or stop me from achieving anything that I truly desire to achieve, and I truly encourage others to do the same, as you never know what one fantastic opportunity could lead to.