Jena Brooker, Environment major, on Food, Energy, and Water Systems in Guacimo, Costa Rica.

Throughout my time in college, I have been stuck in a cycle of chronic fatigue and sinusitis, with additional ailments thrown in for months at a time. I visited multiple doctors, including specialists and even naturopaths. But none of them could figure out why I was always sick. Despite this, I signed up for a study abroad program entitled: “Food, Energy, and Water Systems in Costa Rica.” Because I had started working with a new doctor recently, I had been confident I would feel better by the time of the trip. 

Unfortunately I didn’t feel better in time, and less than two weeks before my departure I was diagnosed with Lyme disease. My immune system was weak, and I was deficient in several nutrients and minerals. However, I decided to go because at that point I had already been living with Lyme for who knows how long and I was so excited about the subject of the course. Another month wasn’t really going to hurt anything. 

As soon as I arrived in Costa Rica, I developed a sinus infection. It felt like my head was underwater. I lost my voice and it was hard to sleep at night. The sinus stuff was compounded with my everyday fatigue and low energy. The food and heat made me feel even more tired than usual. As a vegetarian with Lyme disease, I have a strict diet. And although our meals were prepared thoughtfully, I was sometimes only able to eat beans and rice, which left me feeling heavy.

All of this resulted in a lack of physical energy to attend all of the activities, field work, and lectures. I definitely didn’t have the mental energy to socialize in my free time because I was so concerned about getting enough sleep and having the energy to make it through the day. I was bummed I couldn’t engage as much as I wanted to in both the social and academic aspects of the trip. 

The group was bonding while I felt sick, irritable, and tired. I missed out on, what I heard later, was the best night of the trip when they went out for pizza and then to a local bar. Although I was very open about Lyme and how I wasn’t feeling well, it came back around to me near the end of the trip that some students felt resentful that I was missing different activities. 

When CGIS caught wind of how I was feeling, they emailed me to talk about my health. Initially I ignored the email, which I don’t recommend. But I had been in multiple programs similar to this one, where I’d found the program to be unsympathetic to my poor health. I was afraid CGIS was going to make me come home, which would have presented another hurdle financially and academically. When I finally spoke to the CGIS office however, I found that they really cared. They worked with me to make it an enjoyable experience. This included on-site support and support from the Michigan office. The Health and Safety Advisor, Rachel Reuter, personally checked in with me and went through the schedule and structure of the program day-by-day, to identify areas that could be adapted to make the experience more comfortable. I don’t know if it’s because I finally had a diagnosis, but I had never had this experience of support before in this type of setting. 

Before I went on the trip I was really thinking about backing out. To help with my decision I turned to friends, family, and Google. Although it’s cheesy, I read this article about travelling while chronically sick that helped me out. In the article the author said something similar to “If you’re going to be sick, you might as well be sick in x country.” That rationale just made sense to me. You never know when you’re going to feel better with chronic sickness, or if you ever will feel better, so I decided I couldn’t let it keep me from taking advantage of an amazing opportunity. 

While there were many amazing aspects of the program such as leaving the country for the first time, EARTH University, —practicing my Spanish, and more — given the choice again, I would not choose to do this program. But, I would be open to doing a different study abroad program in the future. What I’ve learned from this experience is that a structured, intensive study abroad, like this 3-week course, is not for me. This class involved early wake up times, long days, and a lot of traveling. The sinus infection I got at the start of the program only lasted two weeks, but that was half of the program! I just wasn’t in the right place in the beginning, and there wasn’t time for me to rebound before the trip ended. 

In the future while looking for a study abroad program, I would look for one that is more similar to my domestic schedule. One that allows for more space throughout the week for rest and recharging. I would look for a study abroad that was perhaps longer in length, so I could adjust and have time to build relationships with people over the duration of the course, while still being able to take care of myself. Many people experience difficulties when adjusting to new situations or going abroad for the first time, but it is especially difficult when you are chronically sick.  

Despite reaching out to everyone close to me (and Google) to help me make my decision about going or not, only I knew what was within my capacity. Chronic illness is different for everyone. Knowing how supportive CGIS was though, I would definitely do another study abroad program with them. If you are a student that wants to study abroad but has a chronic illness, I wouldn’t let that stop you. It may just take more thoughtfulness to find the right program that fits your situation- and hopefully you can have those conversations about schedules and needs before you leave.