Crystal vs. Diabetes

American Idol runner-up Crystal Bowersox has type-1 diabetes, but she refuses to let the disease hold her back.

Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Crystal Bowersox has a life many would envy. She placed second last year on American Idol and was a favorite of fans of the show. And the singer’s first album debuted last December.

But being on a hit TV show doesn’t mean she is free of problems. Crystal, 25, has type-1 diabetes, a serious ailment that almost forced her off Idol. Her health deteriorated so badly while she was taping the show that she was hospitalized and almost disqualified from the competition.

Diabetes prevents a person’s body from producing enough insulin, a hormone that allows the body to turn the sugar in food it consumes into energy. Without insulin, a person’s blood-sugar level can rapidly rise, which can cause serious problems for the body. In people with type-1 diabetes, the body produces little or no insulin.

Diagnosed Young

Crystal was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes when she was in the second grade. “At school, I was taking too many bathroom breaks and snack breaks,” she says. “I was actually punished for it.” Her parents took her to a doctor, who thought to test Crystal’s blood sugar.

Untreated, people afflicted with diabetes have to urinate frequently and eat food constantly. They also are thirsty a lot. The bathroom trips are a signal that blood-sugar levels are too high and the excess sugar is causing fluid to be drawn out of the body’s tissues. The body is hungry because it can’t absorb the glucose from the bloodstream.

If blood-sugar levels are not at a healthy level, diabetics can lose the ability to speak and think clearly. They can also lose control of their muscles, which can lead to seizures. And diabetics are at risk of fainting and even falling into a coma.

Balancing blood-sugar levels is tricky, so many diabetics take medication to promote insulin production in the body. Others have to inject insulin into their body. For years, Crystal injected herself with insulin. “When I was younger, my mom gave me the shots, but pretty soon I got sick of that and started doing them myself,” she says.

Tough Times

But staying on top of her insulin injections was a challenge for Crystal when she was a teen. “I was hospitalized a lot during high school,” she says. Her parents divorced, and the stress of the changing family situation contributed to Crystal’s getting lazy about her insulin regimen. “Our home life was pretty chaotic,” she says. “It was very stressful growing up.”

Ignoring problems, whether they stem from being part of a divorced family or from having diabetes, is not a good idea. Crystal’s body suffered. “I’d think, ‘I don’t want to deal with this today,’” she says. “But you can’t do that. You can’t take a day off.”

A few years ago, Crystal’s doctor suggested she use an insulin pump. This pump works automatically, which takes pressure off Crystal to make sure she is getting the insulin she needs. The pump is also precise in determining how much insulin a diabetic’s body needs.

Unfortunately, the pump is expensive. But Crystal used her musical talent to raise money to buy a pump. “I’ve only been hospitalized twice since I started using a pump,” she says. “It’s made a difference.”

Idol Interrupted

One of those incidents occurred when Crystal was competing on American Idol. The competition was stressful, and Crystal admits that she paid more attention to trying to win than trying to be healthy. One day, she woke up with dangerously high blood sugar. “Doctors said I really should have been in a coma,” Crystal says. “It was scary.”

Worried about her health, Idol producers wanted her to leave the show. But Crystal insisted on staying. “I cried and said, ‘No way. I’ve come too far to let diabetes stop me,’” she says.

Crystal stayed on and made it all the way to the finals. Her success on Idol led to her recording her first album. But she doesn’t want to be known as just an entertainer; she’s also an advocate for diabetics. She is pushing for better medical coverage for them.

“I have been in the position of begging for insulin,” Crystal says. “My mom has type-2 diabetes, but for a long time she didn’t check her blood-sugar levels or take her medications because she couldn’t afford them. That’s just wrong.”

As for her own health, Crystal vows never to let her diabetes go unchecked again. “I decided I would never let that happen again,” she says.

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