Staying Healthy as You Go and Tell
by Marti Pieper
So you—or people close to you—plan to take an international mission trip sometime soon. You’ll want to do everything you can to stay healthy. After all, you can’t fulfill God’s call if you’re lying in bed. So pay attention to these travel tips, designed specifically for the mission field, and ward off illness as you wield the sword of the Lord.
Forward and Back
You’ll prepare spiritually for your trip, but did you know you need to prepare physically as well? Pay it forward with these ideas, and ensure a healthy start to your mission adventure.
Start a few months beforehand with proper nutrition and plenty of rest. Increasing your water intake to a gallon a day or more will also help you prepare. If you don’t already have an exercise routine, you now have a great reason to begin one. Most mission trips involve moderate to heavy physical activity. Start training now by adding one or more brisk walks (30 minutes or more) to your daily routine.
Many overseas trips require special immunizations or disease prevention measures. Check with your sending organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (www.cdc.gov, “Travelers’ Health”) about recommended shots for your destination. A travel clinic will have what you need, but you may be able to obtain the same immunizations or medicines at your county health department. Check on this several months in advance since some shots come in series and some medicines must be taken days or even weeks ahead of your departure.
You can also prepare by checking on your health insurance coverage. Some plans will cover international care, but many do not. Ask if your sending church or organization offers mission trip/travel insurance, or check out websites such as www.travelguard.com/aig/insurance or www.imglobal.com/mission-insurance.
Your sending organization will often provide medical supplies, but you’ll want to take a few personal items, too. Suggestions include Band-Aids, antibiotic ointment, pain reliever, sinus and allergy medicine, anti-diarrhea and anti-nausea medication, laxative/stool softener and sunscreen.
If your flight extends past a few hours, pay it forward to lessen jet lag. If possible, get extra sleep the week before you leave and decrease your sodium and caffeine intake. While on the flight, avoid caffeine, set your watch ahead and try to eat and sleep on the schedule of your destination country. On your way back, reverse this model.
What you put into your body, on or off the field, has a great impact on your health. Learn the translation for “purified water” before you go. In many places, you’ll want to avoid drinking or brushing your teeth with local water and stay away from ice or other beverages made from it as well. Pack a lidded, refillable water bottle and plan to have more portable water (or, if traveling to a remote area, purification supplies) on hand than you need. Laura Little*, a missionary leader who has taken multiple international trips, says, “In traveling and ministering, dehydration is one of the easiest and most preventable setbacks.”
On the field, the word on the street is simple: Don’t eat the food on the street. In other words, avoid food from street vendors. Be careful in restaurants, too. Your missionary host or leader can often advise you about safe-food sources. And don’t start (or continue) a raw diet on your mission trip. Nutritious as they are, raw fruits and vegetables often carry parasites, so unless an experienced missionary assures you of their safety, wait on raw until you’re back home.
Try adding a few packages of favorite crackers or other snacks to your packing list, too. Familiar foods, Little says, can help “keep us comfortable when everything else around us is strange.”
While on the field, unexpected situations will arise. A family may cook you a meal or offer you a treat, so please be sensitive. I’ve encountered more than one situation where I smiled and swallowed the food shared with me even if it seemed strange. Ask God for His protection, especially when failing to eat the local cuisine could hinder the spread of the gospel.
On the mission field, lots of things seem upside down: your schedule, your preferences, your time. But these final tips can help you keep the trip from taking a wrong turn.
Two must-have items are a comfortable, good-quality pair of walking shoes and a versatile jacket. Break in at least one pair of closed-toe shoes beforehand. No missionary needs blisters or bruises to keep her from devoting time and energy to those she came to serve.
But what’s the No. 1 practical, preventive measure for illness—both at home and on the mission field? Adequate handwashing. Keep a small amount of local currency with you (many restrooms in other countries charge a small fee) along with soap, hand sanitizer and wet wipes.
Getting enough sleep is a common missionary challenge. Take advantage of unexpected moments of rest on bus or train rides or between scheduled events. Although mission trips are notorious for cramming multiple activities into a short time-frame, do your best to continue or extend your seven hours of sleep per night. “In a cross-cultural context, your brain is working overtime to process all the new sights, sounds and smells you’re experiencing,” Little explains. “To be alert mentally and walk faithfully spiritually, it is critical that you get adequate rest. If not, all other areas of health will be affected.”
And don’t forget to pray. “Ephesians 6 warns us that the true battle of Christians is not against flesh and blood but is rather a spiritual one. Spiritual warfare can often take physical form,” Little says. “We need to be abiding in Christ, trusting in Him and praying against strongholds as we serve. In it all, remember that we are not praying and fighting for victory but from victory. Our Lord has conquered the grave!”
*name changed to protect identity in sensitive locations
Marti Pieper’s passion to read, write and pray makes her life an adventure. She holds a B.S. from The Ohio State University and an M.Div. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with writing and editing for various magazines, she has written eight nonfiction books and serves a student-missions sending organization as director of prayer and publication. Marti loves her new role as grandma to the cutest little boy in the world. Find her at www.martipieper.com.
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