Whether you are a newly diagnosed heart patient, recovering from heart surgery, or somewhere in between, the idea of travel with heart disease can be a source of anxiety. Worries include staying healthy when your routine changes, packing medicines and supplies, how to get emergency care away from home, and more. As a lifelong heart patient (not to mention my other complicating health conditions) and a recent survivor of open heart surgery, I’ve learned mostly through trial and error how to travel by car, train, or plane as calmly and safely as possible.
General travel considerations
A few tips apply to any sort of travel with an existing heart condition:
- Keep an emergency identification bracelet, necklace, or wallet card on hand and emergency medicines like nitroglycerin with you at all times
- Find and store information about the local urgent care and hospital at your destination
- Remember to move around as often as you can during the travel to avoid blood clots and pain around incisions
- Pack small, healthy, protein-filled snacks to save money and time during travel delays
Benefits to travel by car
When you drive yourself to a destination, you have no outside restrictions on what luggage you can bring, or how much. You can easily tote supplies like medicines in original bottles or in weekly dose containers. You can bring foods of your choice, and coolers, to maintain low-cost, healthy options. And you can stop when you need or want for rests, bathroom breaks, and meals.
Considerations for train travel
Train travel might be a remnant of a bygone era, but it is still an easy—if slower—way to get from city to city. Benefits for health include
- enough room to keep multiple bags close at hand and accessible at almost any time
- ability to take a nap, or scheduled medicines, as needed
- ability to get up and stretch or walk
However, if portability is a concern (eg, with an oxygen tank or a walker), trains can be difficult to navigate: Restrooms and food often require movement between cars, with tight doors and long aisles. The stop-and-go nature of train speeds as they pass through smaller cities and stations can prolong general discomfort with travel, too.
Important preparation for flying with medical needs
By far the fastest way to reach a far-off destination is plane travel. Getting through security screens and observing luggage restrictions can challenge even the healthiest travelers, though. Use these tips to be as prepared as possible for any hurdle:
- Bring medicines in original containers that have pharmacy labels and doctor names
- Bring a letter from your doctor if you require a liquid or cream medicine that exceeds TSA allowances (currently 3.4 ounces), or—even better—request a smaller refill size from the pharmacy (eg, two smaller tubes instead of one larger tube) ahead of your travel date
- Keep your doctor’s information with your carry-on or wallet, and keep any medical cards (eg, for implanted surgical devices) on hand for security review
- Don’t put anything you cannot replace (eg, vital medications) into checked baggage that may be lost or delayed
- Carry an empty water bottle through security screening to fill at a fountain or restaurant in the waiting area
- Keep all medicines together in an approved clear bag
- Label all necessary soaps, lotions, and other pourables, in part so that you can answer any questions at a security screening with ease
- Pack small but healthy snacks into carry-on pockets and nooks to avoid buying high-fat or sugary snacks in the waiting area
Remember, too, that the weight restriction for carry-ons might be higher than the weight you are able to carry without straining your heart. Try to use rolling luggage and smaller shoulder or backpack bags when possible. Prepare for long lines and a lot of time on your feet, and remember to shift positions as much as possible to keep muscles and blood vessels loose.
Last, keep in mind that anxiety about the x-ray machine, the cabin pressure, and more are completely natural after a major heart event. Whether you require it because of metal implantation or you would prefer it because of nerves, you can have a personalized security pat down in a private room instead of entering the screening machines. Just remember that this requires a longer time to make it to your gate.
For my first trip after open heart surgery, at 7 months post-op, I had the opportunity to travel between three cities by car, plane, and then train. My biggest lessons?
Eating well was easiest in my own car with a packed lunch and drink, though driving myself was tiring.
The train was ideal for napping, and I loved not having my carefully packed medicines and lotions measured and jostled in advance. Having them accessible to me, along with water bottles, at all times was great, too.
Plane travel was the most stressful and the least consistent. Standing in long lines with baggage and without a water bottle was difficult, and worries about leg clots in the cramped space wasn’t fun. Also, the slow searches, the random concerns about sizes of special lotions for my incisions, and nerves about going through the scanner for the first time with my new valve made the prep time uncomfortable. Similarly, not having access to even my carry-on niceties for snacks, medicine times, and napping because luggage was stored overhead and we were belted during the flight was frustrating.
Despite the challenges, all types of travel are possible with heart considerations. They might require extra effort and planning, but the destination is always worthwhile!
Nicole Van Hoey is a freelance writer and editor for consumer and professional health publications. She underwent open heart surgery in August 2016 and writes about the experience, including cardiac rehab, for HealthCentral. She can be found on Twitter @VHMedComm and writing about family life after heart surgery at Bloglovin’.