By Kathryn Larson
I still wonder, “What was I thinking?” I had spent my entire life in a secure community near Denver, yet when I was presented with the opportunity to take a two-week tour of Vietnam, I jumped at it – in spite of the fact that not only was I new to travel, I was also emerging from a three-and-a-half-year “recovery” after being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.
My life with diabetes began in 2006 when I was 18 and a freshman at a small college in California. I was home in Colorado for winter break, and my mom insisted that I see the family physician, thinking I might be anorexic; I had dropped about 30 pounds since she had last seen me in November. A blood test revealed such high blood sugar that my AIC was immeasurable.
The diagnosis drastically altered my perceptions of the world and my place in it. I left my college in California and returned home, and for three years, battled severe depression, stress and anxiety over simply leaving the safety of my home. I feared I would never be able to control my blood sugar enough to live a normal life. Over time, I started to feel secure enough about my health to maintain a job and eventually graduate from college, but something was missing.
In September 2009, I received an e-mail from one of my former professors at my California college – the only one who had noticed how skeletal I looked before I was diagnosed. The professor’s e-mail explained that he was returning to Vietnam for the first time since serving in the Vietnam War, and he was inviting alumni to accompany him on a 10-day tour retracing his journey through the country.
To my surprise, he was elated by my interest in the tour. Before I had a chance to back out, I was booked for the trip, reserving airplane flights and making arrangements regarding school and work. On many occasions, I wanted to cancel my reservations, scared to travel alone with diabetes. All the “what ifs” almost crippled me. “What if I have a drastic low?” “What if my insulin goes bad and I cannot get more?” And what about the travel itself?
But there was something inside me telling me that I had to make the trip. As my mother said, “If you can do this, you can do anything.” So on April 8, 2010, by myself, I headed to Vietnam, where I would meet up with the rest of the group. I can still remember how it felt when I took a deep breath, walked though the security checkpoint at the airport and was off on the adventure of my life.
On the flight from Hong Kong to Ho Chi Minh City, I sat beside a man who expressed interest in my trip. When I told him I had diabetes, he reacted with surprise and asked questions like “Are you allowed to travel alone? What happens if you collapse and no one knows what to do?” After getting over the shock of being asked such direct questions, I explained that I always carry candies in my purse in case of emergency, and I wear my medical alert bracelet. He still seemed skeptical. I know that these kinds of interactions are inevitable. Diabetes is difficult for anyone understand—I mean I’m still figuring it out—but still, it bothered me.
Once the tour was in full swing, I set aside that man’s words. I was immersed in an enchanting new world, adapting to the culture, the people, and of course, the food. The only true source of carbohydrates was either rice or fruit. Normally, I would have chosen the fruit and been fine, but I had been advised to only eat fruit that had a thick skin that I could peel myself. Nevertheless, I maintained a good balance of food, except on the days spent mostly traveling on a tour bus. When I am in constant motion, my body becomes numb, and I can’t always discern a high or low blood sugar. I battled this uncertainty by checking my numbers more frequently than usual.
At times I forgot my diabetes entirely, especially when encountering the people of Vietnam. One memorable experience was meeting local rice farmers while visiting two areas that had been major landing strips during the war. The beauty of their humanity shone through in their smiles and reminded me that we do not have to separate ourselves by labels – by the color of our skin, our race, our wealth – or whether or not we have diabetes. We all share in pain and simple happiness, and because of that commonality, I could forget what separates us and focus on what unites us.
Sure, there were times I felt weary of the restraints of having diabetes. At a visit to the tomb of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi, my bag of diabetes testing supplies and insulin was pulled aside for inspection. The security officer asked if my insulin pen was a torch! I showed security my medical emergency bracelet and was allowed inside, but I still felt slightly degraded. As a diabetic, I have developed a thicker skin in situations like this, but sometimes I succumb to human nature and take the allegations personally.
Looking back, my Vietnam journey – like my life with diabetes – included some “highs” and “lows.” But all in all, my mother was right; I proved to myself that I am capable of accomplishing any goal I choose. Leaving one’s comfort zone may be frightening, but that makes it worth the effort. Diabetes will never stop me from doing anything I want to do.
Kathryn Larson was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2006 at the age of 18. While dealing with the constant ups and downs of the disease, she managed to obtain a B.A. in psychology from the University of Colorado at Denver in May 2010. She is now pursuing a Masters in Arts of Religion in Church Ministry from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.