Travelling with a Health Condition: Two Years Post Stroke (Part One)
Where to begin? The last few weeks have been truly significant. Not only was it my two-year anniversary of the bleed on 20th May, but I’ve just returned from quite possibly the best 2 weeks ever travelling around Sabah in Borneo with Richard. We were supposed to travel around Sri Lanka, but with the country’s current economic crisis and the government’s announcement advising against all but essential travel just one week prior to our departure date, we quickly had to scrap our plans and come up with a plan B.
Having always had a strong desire to travel the world, as soon as Covid restrictions began to ease in a lot of different countries, it was (without question) time to jump back on a plane, fly far away and explore somewhere new. But following the personal health issues I’ve encountered over the last few years, I quickly realised how much more I had to take into consideration when planning our trip, along with some new anxieties and fears that I’d never felt before when thinking about travelling abroad.
Booking the trip:
When Richard and I decided to book our original trip to Sri Lanka back in January, it all came together very quickly and within a few hours of coming up with the idea and finding dates that we could both take off work, the flights were booked. During this very short burst of a build-up (if you can even call it that) I went through all the motions. Initially, I felt excited as I envisioned the two of us experiencing new things and escaping reality, but as soon as the flights were secured, a little voice in my head crept in and began to plant seeds of worry and doubt. Wait, am I even okay to travel? What if I have a seizure on holiday? Or on the plane? What if something happens to Richard and I’m incapable of helping? What if I lose all my seizure tablets abroad? Do they even have the same medication in Sri Lanka? All these questions were flying around in my head, but I couldn’t quite make sense of them at the time so instead, I was quiet. With Richard buzzing like a bee and my head scrambled with anxiety I began to get frustrated with myself and my situation. Why can’t I just do anything and feel carefree like before? Why does my condition rob me of any spontaneous joy? Thoughts like these kept circling and I eventually burst into tears. As usual, Richard knew exactly what to say and helped shift my perspective. I might not have felt how I wanted to at the time, but emotions are unpredictable, and this was just another reminder that even two years on from my stroke, I’m still experiencing things for the first time from a whole new perspective. In hindsight, rather than allowing myself to sit with how I was feeling, I became caught up in noticing how alien this all felt and instead took it out on myself. However, once the initial worry had passed and I was able to make sense of what I was feeling, it soon became clear that this was only natural. It was okay to feel nervous and it would probably be strange if I didn’t.
Over the last two years, through reading books and listening to podcasts, I’ve learnt that fear is the brain’s hardwired response to protect us from life-threatening scenarios, such as fighting wild animals back in hunter-gatherer times. However, with the threat to life being so small now compared to what it once was, and our brains’ lack of adaptation to today’s modern world, the fears we often feel do not accurately reflect the threat in front of us (unless it literally is a life-or-death situation). Consequently, we should instead use fear as a cue to ‘face everything and rise’. As cringe as it sounds, it is so true! Having been cushioned in my comfort zone at home for the last two years (due to Covid too), of course, it is going to feel scary jetting off over five thousand miles away. Yes, there will be new things to take into consideration before flying, but so many people travel with health conditions and with plenty of time to prepare beforehand, by the time we travel, I’ll be in the best position I can be. I just had to make a thorough to-do list and take action.
Sort travel insurance and declare medical history.
Call the epilepsy clinic and discuss adjusting medication timings to the destination of travel’s time zone (Borneo is 8 hours ahead of BST).
Order extra medication so that I a) have enough and b) can pack extra in my suitcase, hand luggage and Richard’s suitcase in case anything goes missing.
Request several copies of doctor notes and prescriptions for proof of medication to carry in my suitcase and hand luggage in case I get stopped at the airport or I lose my medication and need to go to a pharmacy whilst away.
Request a doctor’s note from The Gait Lab explaining what my FES is in case I get questioned at the airport.
Request extra wires and electrodes to take for my FES in case anything breaks whilst I’m away.
Ask my physio for a short routine I can do daily to keep my muscles engaged and active to prevent getting super stiff and achy.
Buy/find sturdy, supportive sandals that won’t fall off my feet for the times on holiday when I don’t wear my trainers and FES.
Scan and print medical documents to take with me confirming my conditions in case anything happens.
A few days before departure, start adjusting my morning and evening medication times to suit the time difference.
Book aisle seats on all flights so I can get up regularly and with ease to move around.
If you have epilepsy, here’s a useful link of things to consider when travelling.
Friday 20th May – goodbye reality, hello freedom!
The reason for booking our trip’s departure date on the 20th of May was because this coincided with the queen’s platinum jubilee, meaning that we could go away for sixteen days and only take eight days off work thanks to the bank holiday weekend in early June. It just so happened that this also meant flying on the two-year anniversary of my stroke, but I quite liked this idea as I have vivid memories from my early days in hospital questioning whether I’d ever be able to travel again (at this point it was unclear whether I’d ever be able to walk again), so to travel halfway across the world on this date would be significant in more ways than one.
This year’s anniversary felt so different to the first. I’m sure that's because the first year is ‘normally’ the hardest, but I think a huge factor in me feeling this way is because, as life has gone on and my world has begun to expand, I no longer feel such a strong divide between my life before the stroke and my life today. This, alongside the little time to breathe in the week leading up to our trip as we frantically had to change plans, enabled me to feel somewhat at peace as I approached this momentous day.
Dad dropped us at Heathrow Airport early on Friday morning and after an emotional goodbye, our adventure had begun! We dropped our bags, flew through security (no medicine or FES checks needed, phew!) and followed our noses to the best breakfast spot in T3. I decided to not wear my FES to the airport to avoid any hassle of having to take it off at security and put it back on. Instead, I had it in my hand luggage and put it on whilst we were waiting to board at the Gate. You might be thinking, if you’re not going to wear it until you get on the plane, then what’s the point in wearing it at all? But the FES helps regulate muscle stiffness by stimulating the correct muscles to work when walking, which I knew would become beneficial as our long journey progressed.
Our first destination on our two-week backpacking-style trip was Kuala Lumpur, which meant 15 hours of flying, broken up with a 3-hour layover in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Having flown to Gran Canaria for a long weekend just a few weeks prior, I didn’t feel too nervous about the flying itself, I just knew that I’d need to make the effort to get up and move around regularly to minimize muscle stiffness. As the first flight was during the day, I got up every hour to get my muscles moving and even found myself doing single-leg squats in the airplane loo, as walking sometimes wasn’t enough to loosen up my legs. (I never planned on doing this, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do!)
Having three hours in Riyadh was actually a great way to break up the long journey and I made the most of this by walking around as much as possible, especially knowing that the next flight would be through the night which would mean not moving around as much.
From the moment we got on the plane at Heathrow, I was bursting with excitement. Over the last few years, I’ve been continuously reminding myself that ‘it’s all about the journey, not the destination’ and I feel like I was experiencing this metaphor in real life. We weren't even there yet but I couldn’t stop smiling and neither could Richard. It was happening. We were on the plane. Flying far away to explore somewhere new together, even though two years ago I was rushed to hospital and unsure whether I’d ever be able to walk or use my left side again. I can’t even put into words how this felt. There is no greater feeling than *actually* doing something you once thought would never be possible again.
Travels around Borneo to be continued in Part 2...