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Tips for Traveling to a Medical Appointment

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Many of us in the chronic illness community have seen numerous doctors all over the country, whether it is seeking a diagnosis, or for a new treatment. I have taken many trips, some by car, some by plane, and I’ve learned a lot in the experience, and thought I’d provide a few tips and tricks I wish I’d known at the beginning.

Your Medical Records

You may think if you were referred by your local doctor, your records would be sent to the new physician. You may even have worked with the records department and filled out forms to have your records sent to the new doctor. I learned the hard way that this does not always happen! So now, I have a large plastic portfolio type envelope containing all my records, not just those from my referring physician. This envelope includes CDs of MRIs and X-rays as well. I take this with me to appointments with any new doctor, even locally, and more often than not, it’s a good thing I have them because my electronic records did not arrive. So, get hard copies from your doctors (you may have to pay for printing costs) and take them with you on your trip.


Air Travel

Flying is very fatiguing, even for the able-bodied, so just know you are going to go deep into your spoon supply if you fly. But there are ways to make it less fatiguing, as I’ve discovered:

The most important thing is to request wheelchair assistance when you buy your tickets. You can do this via the airline website, or if you buy tickets over the phone, you can make the request verbally. Be sure to tell them you can walk onto the plane (if you are able), but need a wheelchair elsewhere. (Obviously, if you are a full-time wheelchair user, you will have different needs, but airlines can accommodate those as well.) The airline will make sure you have a wheelchair and someone to take you from the ticket counter, through security, to the gate and to the door of the plane, which saves countless steps.

If your flight requires you have a layover and change planes, they will arrange to have a wheelchair waiting for you at the door of the plane when you arrive at your transfer city and they will take you to your next gate. Once you arrive at your destination, someone will again meet you at the plane door with a wheelchair, and they will take you all the way out to where you get your ground transportation, stopping at baggage claim if necessary. (I have found it is simpler to use the wheelchairs provided by the airport, rather than using my own. It saves the hassle of needing to have the chair stored beneath the plane with all the rest of the luggage, and then retrieved at each stop.)

I have also found my “cane chair” to be indispensable when flying. This cane folds out into a small stool, and it’s what I use when I get to the airport and am waiting at the ticket counter for them to bring the wheelchair. I can carry this cane onto the plane without any problems. The same would apply if you used a folding walker.

I also recommend noise-cancelling headphones for use while on the plane. The constant roar of the engines can exacerbate your fatigue, and these headphones greatly reduce that noise, even if you don’t listen to music, but just have the headphones on and activated. The first time I used these headphones, I was amazed at the difference in my fatigue levels!

Other things to think of for flying:

Food – bring your own, especially if you have dietary issues.

A light jacket – airplanes are notoriously cold, and you don’t want to spend several hours freezing!

A face mask – if you have a compromised immune system.

You can carry on your CPAP machine, and it does not count as one of your “regular” carry-ons.

Don’t check luggage if possible. This saves time when you arrive, when you’ll already be tired from the flight.

Where Will You Stay?

Unless you have friends or relatives in the city you’re visiting, you’ll need to stay in a hotel. Many major medical centers have nearby hotels that offer discounts for patients. Just ask the clinic when you make or confirm your appointment if they have hotel recommendations. The Cleveland Clinic even has a couple of hotels right on the medical campus, and while there is no discount for patients, the convenience of being on the campus is huge! (They also offer a golf cart transport along the skywalk connecting the hotel, clinic and restaurants.) Also, when you make your hotel reservation, ask for an accessible room, or a shower chair in a regular room. Standing up while showering will just use up more of your precious spoons!

What Will You Eat?

Eating away from home offers many challenges, especially if you have dietary restrictions. I like to pack portable food in my carry-on, such as almonds, string cheese, protein bars and the like. Many large medical campuses, such as the Cleveland Clinic, have restaurants right on the premises, so be sure to ask about this when you set up your appointment. I also like to check out nearby restaurants ahead of time, and learn if they deliver. When all else fails, you can always order pizza delivery!

Don’t Go Alone

If at all possible, travel with a friend or family member. Yes, this will cost double the airfare, but having someone who can look out for you while you’re away from home is a real plus. They can run errands (such as going out to get food), take care of scheduling ground transportation, etc. They can also help during your appointment with the doctor – for instance, they can mention something you might have forgotten. I have travelled to clinics both with and without a family member, and the trips when I have someone with me are always less fatiguing, no matter how much I guard my spoons when I’m traveling alone.

At the Clinic

Again, ask for a wheelchair. Every clinic I have visited had wheelchairs for patient use, and had people who can push you if you are traveling alone. Usually there is someone at the front desk who can help you with this when you first arrive at the clinic. Don’t be afraid to ask for this! I made the mistake of not asking for a wheelchair at the clinic on one of my trips, and I paid for it for weeks afterward! Now I always ask for a wheelchair as soon as I get in the front door.

At the Appointment

Have your questions ready for the doctor. In the weeks leading up to the appointment, I keep notes containing any questions that cross my mind. I use my phone for this, so I have them handy when I get to the doctor, but you could certainly just use pen and paper, just as well. Having your questions written down will help you to not miss anything, and it also seems to really impress the doctors, in my experience!

Secondly, take notes of what your doctor says. Many times these appointments are major milestones in your diagnosis and treatment, with so much new information that it may be easy for you to forget everything that was said. Jotting down this information is very helpful in the long run.

Thirdly, don’t forget your envelope of medical records!


I hope these tips will make traveling to out-of-town appointments less of a struggle, and take away some of the fear and confusion that may arise. I learned some of these lessons the hard way, so you don’t have to make the same mistakes! Best of luck to you all!

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Thinkstock photo via ipopba.

Originally published: September 27, 2017
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