I’m a huge Crystal Bowersox fan. Personally, I think this husky-voiced “busker” should have won this year’s American Idol competition, but it’s still freakin’ amazing to take 2nd place in this larger-than-life national competition. Those of you who follow entertainment news (or this blog) know by now that Crystal is “one of us” — a person with diabetes (PWD). She’s a type 1 and insulin pumper, currently using her new-found fame to help fellow PWDs.

I can’t tell you how excited I was to have the opportunity for a phone interview with my music idol Crystal last week. I found her exactly as down-to-earth and cool as she appears on TV. So here it is — as far as I know, the first-ever interview with Crystal focused solely on her experience with diabetes:

“I threw a fit. I literally begged and pleaded, and I cried and said, ‘No way I’ve come this far to let diabetes stop me!'” — Crystal Bowersox, on nearly getting kicked out of the 2010 American Idol competition

DM) Crystal, can you start by sharing your diagnosis story? Was your twin brother Carl also hit with the ‘betes?

CB) I was diagnosed at age 6. I was always really small, just 48 lbs in the 2nd grade, so one of the smallest kids in class. My brother was always towering over me. And no, he thankfully doesn’t have diabetes. He’s perfectly healthy.

At school I was taking too many bathroom breaks and snack breaks. I was actually punished for it. My mom went to the school to discuss it, and then realized something was wrong, so she took to me the doctor to test my blood sugar. I was admitted to the hospital for a week.

That must have been traumatic…

My 6-year old mind doesn’t remember it that way. I don’t remember feeling ill.

I do remember using that giant, honking OneTouch meter, plus we only had N and R insulins, and it was all injections — no fancy pumps or anything.

My mom was doing the shots for a little while, but pretty soon I got sick of that, and started doing them myself.

And how did you manage, growing up? Did you hide your diabetes?

The other kids always knew — like I’d have snacks in class, and I had to leave class to go to the office to check my blood sugar. They’d always say stuff like, ‘Why does she get to eat now and we don’t?’

I remember doing Show and Tell with my diabetes stuff in class. I was the only kid in the area who had diabetes at the time. Now I hear about so many more cases.

Was it tough on your siblings, with you being the center of attention?

My parents were pretty good about giving the same amount of attention to all three of us kids. For a while, the whole house tried to eat healthy, to support me. That lasted about a year, and then everyone went back to eating twinkies in front of me and stuff. But that’s OK. I don’t mind. {chuckles}

What was hardest for you and your family — emotionally? Or financially?

I actually started playing gigs and shows very early. I was a professional musician by about age 10. My dad was my roadie. He took me to most of the bars. I was playing four-hour shows, staying up late doing these gigs and then having to get up for early for school, so it was hard on my body.

But I was OK with it up until puberty. Then the hormones start kicking in and your sugars are all over the place — along with your moods and emotions.

I was hospitalized a lot during high school. Our home life was pretty chaotic, so that didn’t help. It was very stressful growing up. My parents divorced when I was 2.

My mom was a single mother with 3 kids — and trying to deal with one of them with diabetes. She became obsessive about it, constantly asking me about my sugar levels, wanting to know every detail. My mom’s mind was consumed by it. She was constantly worried about me. I didn’t get it when I was younger, but now I’m a mom myself; now I get it.

So your dad was your manager? Was he also the one who pushed you to go on the insulin pump?

I actually managed myself. I was this kid passing out business cards, trying to get my next gig lined up.

It was in high school when my doctor suggested the insulin pump, but it was something we couldn’t afford. We did benefits at bars where I played, and raised a couple-grand, so I could pay the portion of the pump not covered by our insurance.

I got the pump in 2003. I’ve only been hospitalized twice since then, and that was when things happened like my cat chewed through the insulin tubing one morning, and I woke up sick.

I’m on the MiniMed 723 Revel now, and it’s great. I had wanted to get on CGM for a long time, but I couldn’t afford the $60 for the sensors.

I read about how at some point you had to beg for insulin outside a pharmacy. You were totally without coverage or resources… ?

I moved to Chicago when I was 16, and (then after age 18), I still had to be a student full-time to get health coverage under my dad. But I had to work full-time too — that was hard on my body. After a while I gave up going to school, and then I was off the insurance and out of money. That should never happen to anyone.

Luckily I had some diabetic friends that I’d met at a camp in Dayton, Ohio, years earlier, and we re-connected. One of them helped me out with supplies and insulin.

My insurance had run out right before the Idol show… so I’d gotten onto to Medicaid. I had that high-risk pregnancy, and that wasn’t cheap.

Right, your son Tony is 16 months old now. Tell us about your diabetic pregnancy.

It wasn’t that bad, even though I was not in great control before. It was not a planned pregnancy. My sugars had been a little off — more than normal. Then I found out I was pregnant.

I got tons and tons of prenatal care. My insulin needs went up during pregnancy. I had no CGM then, so I was checking with fingersticks like every hour. I was checking maybe 10 to 20 times a day. I was really taking care of myself, and my A1C went from 9 down to 6.

I ended up having mild preeclampsia, so I was induced for labor. Then the baby’s heart beat went down, so they did a C-section. You have this birth plan and everything, and it all goes out the window!

Sounds pretty rough. Did you have the father there supporting you?

My son’s father left when I was six weeks pregnant. But I had a great support network of family and friends. Still, it was difficult getting through the whole thing alone. Some parts were really scary.

My son was born on Jan. 19, 2009. His blood sugar was low at birth. Because my sugars were high, he had extra insulin in his system.

They bottle-fed him right away. I was kind of disappointed because I wanted to breastfeed. But later I successfully breastfed him starting at two months — I did the breast pumping and all. So I’m a pumper of many kinds. {chuckles}

For the most part, it was a very successful pregnancy. I didn’t have many complications.

Speaking of complications, have you had any at all from diabetes?

They found a little retinopathy in my eyes during pregnancy, but it has not progressed. I also notice a little numbness in my feet. That’s why I want to tell kids how important it is to pay attention. When I was a kid, I’d think, ‘I don’t want to deal with this today.’ But you can’t do that! You can’t just put it aside. You can’t just take a ‘day off.’

Tell us about the American Idol experience. You went into DKA while the show was in full swing, no?

I was dealing a lot with wanting to be there, but not wanting to be there. I was away from my son, and a little depressed about that.

One day I woke up and I wasn’t feeling good. My sugars were in the 400s. I told the staff I didn’t feel well, and they took me to the hospital. I thought I’d just be treated real quick and be out of there, but they made me spend the night. My bicarbonate (ph levels) were so low, that they said on paper I really should have been in a coma.

Ken Warwick, the executive producer of the show, came into the hospital to see me, and he said, with his cute British accent, ‘I’m sorry darling. You’re off the show.’ I thought it was a joke! But he wasn’t laughing.

I threw a fit. I literally begged and pleaded, and I cried and said, ‘No way I’ve come this far to let diabetes stop me!’

I begged for a meeting with the Fox executives and show producers. They agreed I could stay only if they could hire a nurse to be with me 24/7. She would sleep in my room and everything. It was sort of post-traumatic stress back to the situation with my mom. But I agreed, and they switched the show date — the guys sang the night before the girls. Luckily, it was before the Top 12, so they could do that.

Wow. And you must have been feeling terrible.

Absolutely. When your blood sugars are that high and you go into DKA, it makes you feel really tired, thirsty, a lot of nausea, and your heart starts racing. Your chest is tight, you can’t breathe. It was an awakening — a wake up call for me to say, ‘I can’t let this happen again.’ Not for my career, or for my son, or for all the kids out there who want to see that anything is possible with diabetes.

I decided would never let it happen again.

Is that the reason you got that type 1 diabetes gladfly tattoo on your arm?

I got that three weeks before the show was over. I’d thought about it for a long time. I personally don’t wear the medic ID jewelry, and I figure I’m diabetic for life. Now every time I look at my wrist, it’s a reminder to think, ‘How is my sugar? How am I doing?’

So it’s a reminder and it’s also awareness that you can do anything with diabetes.

You’re a fan of patient social networks, too. You were a member of TuDiabetes early on, right?

Yeah. TuDiabetes saved my ass once. I was driving to Chicago for the Idol auditions, and I forgot to pack infusion sets. I put up a post saying, ‘help please — I need infusion sets.’

A guy in Rockford, Illinois, responded saying he had a bunch that he was going to return to the company because he didn’t need them. So I packed the baby and drove to Rockford. The guy gave me two boxes of sets.

I sang him a song in his living room as a thank-you. And I said, ‘I’m going to be famous some day.’ I wonder what he’s thinking now. {chuckles}

Being able to network with other people can be so useful for situations like that! And also just being able to talk, to have buddies who know what you’re dealing with … the websites are great.

Please tell us about your advocacy efforts now. What exactly are you doing to help people struggling with diabetes?

I thought about starting my own foundation, but I now think it’s smarter and a more attainable goal to work with JDRF. I’ll be on Capitol Hill next summer for their Children’s Congress, for example. I’m also hoping to work with Elliott Yamin (another former Idol contestant with type 1). We met at the Idol Gives Back After Party, and we’ve started doing some stuff together. We want to make sure no one has to go without the supplies and meds they need.

I have been in the position of begging for insulin. I was 21, 22 — playing in subways all day. I had no insurance and that’s what it came to. No one should have to go through that.

My mom has type 2 diabetes, but for a long time she didn’t check her sugar or take the meds because she couldn’t afford the strips or pills. That’s just wrong.

Now I have Dr. Fran Kaufman as my endo. She’s a leading diabetes doctor, famous and great. We talk on the phone and use Carelink, and that’s how we stay in touch. I’m privileged to have her. But good care shouldn’t be a privilege to the wealthy. I want to bring awareness to the need. That’s what I want to do with this thing we call ‘celebrity.’


Thank you, Crystal! As if your voice weren’t a gift enough. Best of luck with your new album coming out soon. Maybe some of the profits could be directed you-know-where?