Overlooking the essentials: The importance of staying healthy while abroad

    Alex's friends helped push her around while she was in a wheelchair.

    Starting an adventure with the promise of it being the best time of your life also assumes that you’ll be physically able to participate in every opportunity presented to you. I expected and hoped for a lot to come from my study abroad experience. I expected to be challenged: to push myself to think and speak in a different language on a daily basis, adjust to a new time zone and eat things I didn’t know were edible. I hoped to grow as an individual: to embrace a culture and lifestyle totally different from my own and to walk around by myself exploring cafés, seeing parts of the city that the tours I went on during orientation didn’t cover. The problem with these goals is that they are contingent on a vital aspect of the study abroad experience: health. What no one ever really talks to you about with regard to studying abroad is getting hurt or getting sick. Except for maybe catching a cold, I never imagined that either of these things would happen to me.

    In an effort to capitalize on newfound free time, I went on a Sunday night run to start my second full week. As I made my way over a bridge and headed back down toward the river, the right half of my running path suddenly transformed into elongated stairs. In failing to realize this, I conveniently stepped right in the middle of the ramp and the stairs, which ended with a pretty hard fall and the unsettling sound that something had snapped in my ankle. Granted, this isn’t the first time I’ve fallen while running and an injury like this was bound to happen at some point; I just wasn’t expecting that point to be now.

    Of the conversations in Spanish I wanted to have here, explaining to a doctor that I twisted my ankle wasn’t one of them. How was I going to describe that I was running on an uneven surface and fell? How was I going to explain that it hurts when I put my foot down and can’t walk normally? How do I even say “ankle”? As a political science and Spanish major who mostly reads political commentary and Spanish literature, it’s safe to say my knowledge of Spanish medical vocabulary left me a few years back.

    Then came the question of logistics: where is the nearest hospital? Will they help me even though I’m American? Will my insurance card that I received from my program, and never thought I’d have to use, work? How am I going to get around a city where I need to walk for at least 30 minutes to get anywhere?

    Although a second-degree sprain is by far not the worst injury I could have had, what I didn’t realize until I was sitting in a wheelchair during that first week is the importance of being healthy during a time like this. I couldn’t go anywhere by myself. Since the wheelchair didn’t have push rings on the wheels, someone (usually my amazingly patient and kind roommate, Maddie) always had to push me in order to get anywhere. Not to mention the fact that Seville is a walking city and is not very accommodating to anyone with a physical disability – the sidewalks are narrow, the curb ramps are few and far between and much of my path to class is made of cobblestone.

    Yet, the sudden awareness that I couldn’t walk around by myself and explore the city like I wanted or even do the little things like go by myself to the pharmacy and purchase makeup wipes was probably the hardest to come to terms with. Being stripped of my independence during the semester that was supposed to be defined by independence, self-discovery and exploration was debilitating. What’s worse, the feeling that I was hindering other people’s experiences because they always had to make sure someone was pushing me around, or had to slow down because I simply couldn’t move as fast once I moved on to crutches, amplified the guilt and frustration that was already festering.

    To be clear, I am extremely lucky to have the means and support from my family to be able to live in a different country for a semester in the first place, and I'm lucky to have the support from the program staff and my friends throughout my rehabilitation. I'm thankful that my host family knew all the answers to the questions I posed earlier and that my host sister, Paula, came in with me and reminded me that the word for ankle is "tobillo" when she helped me talk to the doctor. I am extremely lucky that they also had, and were willing to give me, a wheelchair to use my first week when it was too hard for me to walk for extended distances with the crutches my professor was kind enough to lend me. I am tremendously grateful to all of these people because I know the little things like getting to class and the big things like pushing me up 36 stories of ramps to the top of the Giralda were no easy feat for them, and it meant the world to me.

    Over the last three weeks, the pressure to have my experience live up to its promise escalated while my ability to truly enjoy myself was put on hold. Instead of appreciating each day for what it offered, I developed a “Once I can walk normally again…” mentality, which made each day in the chair or on crutches seem like an impediment to the experience I was “supposed” to be having rather than part of the experience itself.

    Although not in the way I anticipated, I have been challenged to maintain a positive attitude, appreciate what I have and be resilient when reality falls below expectations. These challenges, however, are universal to the study abroad experience. What people will tell you is that this experience was the best four months of their lives. What they won’t tell you is about the daily frustrations they overcame and looked past to appreciate it that way. Now that I have my full independence back, I’m able to appreciate the little things that were lost on me before and absorb this experience with all of the ups and downs (read: falls) that come with it.

    This piece is part of the ongoing series "Not a Study Abroad Blog." If you're interested in being interviewed about your experience or in writing a post, please email one of the editors at rachelwolfe2018@u.northwestern.edu or mollieleavitt2018@u.northwestern.edu. Also, follow our Instagram and submit photos of your daily mediocrities via direct message to @notastudyabroadinsta.


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