To Travel is to Live

During my five months in Denmark for a study abroad program, I not only learned more about myself and others, but I became more confident in my ability to take care of myself. Don't let CF stand in the way of experiencing that, or any other dreams.

Oct. 6, 2015 | 5 min read
Katie Kirby, MSW

Imagine this: dazzling green Northern Lights outside of Reykjavik, Iceland; glasses of sangria on top of Montjuic overlooking Barcelona; and countless memories sharing a Danish home-cooked meal with a host family. These are some of my most special moments from studying abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. Last spring, I packed everything I could fit into two suitcases and a backpack, and I left home to go live with a host family for five months outside of Copenhagen while taking classes in the city. It was scary, exciting and the most incredible five months of my life.


Prior to leaving, normal fears and anxieties plagued me. What if I didn't get along with my host family or like Copenhagen? What if I didn't make friends? What if I missed my life back home too much? Plus, I had the added fears of traveling with cystic fibrosis: what if customs tried to confiscate my medications, and what if I got sick? My family helped me work through the first set of those worries, and my CF team helped me with the second set. We worked together to compile all the documents I needed for three dozen medicine bottles and my medical record in case I needed to see a doctor in Copenhagen. I also packed oral antibiotics in case I got sick, with the understanding that if that didn't work I would contact my care team to figure out a next step and if I needed to see a doctor there. Because I was healthy, we figured seeing a new doctor in a new hospital setting could do more harm than good and possibly introduce me to new bacteria, which definitely was not on my souvenir list. I'm so thankful to say that I stayed healthy and didn't need to take any oral antibiotics while I was away.


In addition to thinking about all the medications I needed, I spent a lot of time thinking about my housing choice. Originally I was going to live in a dorm, but I realized that getting to know the Danish culture was the biggest thing I wanted to get out of my experience abroad. I worked with the housing coordinators for my program and they found me a wonderful host family. The host family knew that I had CF before agreeing to host me, and I tried to explain to them to the best of my abilities what CF was before I got there. But, how do you really explain to someone what it's like to live with CF? I remember being so nervous the first night doing my treatment and them hearing me cough during it. But eventually I got into a routine and they got used to the sounds of my treatments. 


Studying abroad was indescribable. I immersed myself in a new culture and fell in love with a new city. I met people from all over the world and deepened many interests in traveling, photography and psychology. My time abroad truly made me feel independent and more capable. Even though I have been living on my own for the last three years at college, my parents were always nearby to help. I know that if I needed them, my parents would have been there within 12 hours. But living in Copenhagen made me more confident in my ability to take care of myself. I was able to keep myself healthy and compliant with my medications, despite having to get used to a new diet, climate, environment, etc.

Here are my top five tips that helped me stay healthy while studying abroad (and traveling internationally):

  1. Check the voltage of all your medical machines. Trust me -- you don't want to deal with the stress of trying to replace your machine.
  2. Travel with friends who know about CF. From reminding me to do my meds before we went out for the night to fighting with the airlines in French so that I could carry my vest on board, I would not have been able to travel without the help of my friends.
  3. Be prepared and assertive. Have medical documents and a note in the native language ready in case airport security, or an airline, questions all your medications.
  4. Stay compliant. If I hadn't been compliant with all my medications and treatments during my semester abroad and prior to leaving, I know I would not have been able to travel as much and embrace all the opportunities I had during those five months.
  5. Have the time of your life! There is nothing quite like studying abroad. You get to meet people from all over the world and have the ability to see a different country every weekend. Don't let CF stand in the way of experiencing that, or any other dreams.

This site contains general information about cystic fibrosis, as well as personal insight from the CF community. Opinions and experiences shared by members of our community, including but not limited to people with CF and their families, belong solely to the blog post author and do not represent those of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, unless explicitly stated. In addition, the site is not intended as a substitute for treatment advice from a medical professional. Consult your doctor before making any changes to your treatment.

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Katie is passionate about cooking, reading, traveling, and mental health. A graduate of the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, Katie is a licensed social worker who works in college mental health. Katie is part of CF Community Voice, CF Peer Connect, and the Adult Advisory Council for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Katie lives with her husband, Tyler, and their two puppy sons, Talula and Talubb, in St. Louis.

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