field work prep

Field prep for chronic medical conditions

 

Got field work and a medical condition? Well, you are not alone. Christina Baer, PhD candidate at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, shares great advice on how to prepare for a successful field season that accommodates your needs. We are hoping this post will not only be useful to someone with a medical condition, but also to any field crew-member trying to find out how to support a colleague. Please add a comment if you have any tips related to the topic!

In addition to being a field biologist, I also happen to be a Type 1 diabetic. I’ve just started my ninth year of field work, so it hasn’t slowed me down, but when you have a chronic medical condition, you definitely need to make some extra preparations. I’ve done field work in two very different situations: within driving distance of my home in the US and at field stations in Costa Rica. When I do field work, I’m walking around collecting data on caterpillars, so preparing for field work while living at home is the same as preparing for a hike.

Doing field work while living at a field station in a foreign country for ten or eleven weeks is a little more complicated. The field stations I’ve stayed at are comparable to Girl Scout summer camp—I’m not actually camping, but the only place that has constant air conditioning is the computer server room. Based on my experience, these are some of the preparations you should make before heading off for a long field season.

Disclaimer: I’m working on my PhD, not my MD—I am not a medical professional.

  1. Make sure your medical condition is more or less under control. This is important not just for your safety but also everyone else’s, and the success of the field work.
  2. Do a little worst-case scenario planning. What will happen if your symptoms get worse, you need to replace your medication, or you need to see a doctor? The field work I’ve done has been close to towns, so this would be relatively simple if it ever came up. But I also know researchers who work on remote mountains that they reach on foot or by horse. If you’re doing something like that, replacing medication will be more complicated than driving to the pharmacy.
  3. Pack backup supplies. If you have daily medications or supplies, take at least 1-2 weeks of extra supplies. These are not just important for emergencies, but also if you need to extend your field season. If that happens, the last thing you’ll want to be doing is filling prescriptions. If you have medical equipment, bring at least one extra of each, along with extra batteries and whatnot.

Bringing extras can be really important: one year, I left my insulin on a table in the dining hall at the same time a course group was leaving, and someone decided to send it along with them “just in case”. When I came back for lunch, I discovered that my insulin was headed halfway across Costa Rica. We got it back a week later (minus its cooling pack), but I would have been seriously inconvenienced if I hadn’t had extras.

The one downside to being well-prepared is that all those supplies can take up a lot of space, and packing space is always at a premium. All the science supplies are non-negotiable, so it usually comes down to medical supplies or clothes. Take the supplies. Even if you’ll only have three sets of field clothes to wear in rotation for three months, take the supplies.

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Packing for Costa Rica: The red rectangle in front shows my diabetes supplies. The green rectangle in back shows my clothes.

  1. Share information. Make sure people know what your medical condition is, that your medication is yours (see above), and whether it needs to be kept cold, dry, etc. If you’re traveling abroad, make sure you can describe your medical condition and medication to others. When I started teaching myself Spanish, some of the first things I looked up were “diabetic”, “insulin”, and how to ask for a refrigerator or ice. (Since so much medical terminology has its roots in Latin or is recently created, this probably won’t be hard. “Diabetic” and “insulin” are simply diabético/a and insulina in Spanish.)
  2. Follow medical advice in the field. Even if it’s not about your “real” medical problems. On a field course I took, a professor with some chronic health problems got dehydrated and didn’t drink his rehydration salts because they taste nasty. He developed a urinary tract infection, was carried out of our field site on a stretcher, and taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Not fun.

I hope this information is useful to some of you. If you have questions, feel free to contact me at baerc@umsl.edu, although I can’t promise to have answers.

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Christina Baer is a PhD candidate in the Marquis Lab at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her research interests include plant-insect interactions, natural history, and community ecology, so she’s doing her dissertation research on how tropical caterpillars build shelters to protect themselves from predators and parasitic insects. She wants to be a professor when she grows up.