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8 Tips for Moving Abroad When You Have a Chronic Illness

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I’m a British girl, who has been living in Europe on and off the past three years (we Brits have a weird thing where we don’t always view ourselves as European, but that’s a whole can of Brexity worms).

I was living in Spain when I was diagnosed with lupus, and had to quit my job and return to the UK. Being stubborn and undeterred, four months later I was moving back to Spain to study for my master’s degree. After another summer in the UK, I moved to Berlin for a five month Erasmus semester, and I am currently in the middle of an internship in Brussels. As my UK rheumatologist said when I announced my Berlin plans: “You don’t like things simple.”

And every move I’ve done, I’ve done independently (except for being dropped off at the airport – thanks dad!). As someone who is determined to not lose her independence, I have to be my main carer. I have to be the one to make sure my health and my healthcare doesn’t suffer as a result of not being settled down. Every move since my diagnosis has been a learning curve of navigating foreign healthcare systems, and it has never been easy. Luckily, I’ve picked up a few tips.

So whether it’s a permanent or temporary move, for a job or for studies, or it was spontaneous – I hope these tips will help so you can focus on the excitement of moving to another country, rather than the anxiety of what ifs that can come with chronic illness.

1. Research the healthcare system

If I could, I would design an online database with all the info needed to understand the healthcare system of different EU countries. Because they always differ, and I always find it a bit of a struggle to understand how it works. What is normal to everyone around you, you may have no idea where to start. Expat websites can offer advice, but sometimes it might not be clear. Sometimes, all the advice focused on long-term expats or students, and I am neither. If you’re living somewhere for less than six months you might not even be expected to register with a doctor, but of course chronic illness warriors have to! But the internet can help, and if in doubt find someone to contact – either from an insurance company, or someone who works in social security. Try and get an understanding of how the system works – for example, if you’re an EU citizen with an EHIC card, find out whether you can automatically get covered or you need to register with an insurance company first.

2. Stock up on meds before you go

Ask your doctor for as much as they are willing to prescribe. Sure, it takes up a lot of precious room in your luggage, but it’s good to have a decent supply to get you through the settling period.

3. Gather all your medical records, and have a doctor’s letter summarizing everything

Doctors love me (ha) because mine are in different languages. But, when moving I make sure to ask for a brief letter to summarize everything, preferably in English as it is the universal language, to give the next doctor less of a headache, and they are more confident following on from what the previous doctor was working on.

4. Find the best travel option for yourself

Usually I fly, but from Berlin to Brussels I got the train. This was mostly because flying can trigger pleurisy (lung inflammation), and also because it meant I didn’t have to worry about luggage weight. And I know for some people the lights on planes can trigger symptoms. You know you and your comfort needs best.

5. Don’t be afraid to ask for help

I nearly always have a parent drop me off or pick me up from the airport, because yay free taxi service. If you feel like you need someone to be there to meet you, or even to help you with the journey, don’t be afraid to ask. Don’t be afraid to ask strangers for help with luggage if needed.

6. Allow time to recharge after the move

Whether it is a day, a week, a month. You are the best judge of your own body, and will have the best idea of how much of a toll the move will take on it. Allow yourself enough time to recuperate before leaping into a new job, etc.

7. Find doctors who speak your language

Whether your first language or any you are comfortable with, if you can find one it is ideal. Sometimes describing symptoms can be difficult if you cannot find the words to describe to the doctor as well as you’d like (I have found that on occasion a very specific description is what helps the doctor identify the cause). When it comes to your health, the comfort of easy communication works wonders.

8. Know your rights

As an EU citizen, I am entitled to the EHIC which allows free state healthcare in all EU countries. Which is unbelievably great and has saved me so much money, and perhaps is the reason why I’ve managed to live abroad so soon after my diagnosis. The problem is, I’ve found some doctors being a little unwilling to give me access to all care when I’m not paying taxes (as a student for example). Not that they would prevent anyone from accessing what they need, but I would face complaints about the cost of my medicine as they wrote my prescriptions, or a reluctance to refer to specialists. If you ever face anything like this, but are covered one way or another, know that you’re completely in the right and whatever you need, they should give.

Getty Image by YakobchukOlena

Originally published: April 15, 2018
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