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American Idol runner-up shares Type 1 diabetes story in Berks County

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Crystal Bowersox stands for a portrait at Camp Swatara in Bethel, Berks County. The songwriter and American Idol runner-up met with children who, like her, have Type 1 diabetes. (Lisa Wardle/WITF)

When Crystal Bowersox isn’t on tour or working on songs at home in Nashville, she goes on a different kind of tour – meeting children who, like her, have Type 1 diabetes.

That tour brought her to Camp Swatara in Bethel, Berks County in July, where she performed for children and teens from all over the east coast. 

She never meant to become a spokeswoman for people with Type 1. Her dream was to become a professional musician. But she would learn that her dreams and her disease are both part of who she is.

With Type 1 diabetes, the pancreas stops producing insulin. It can be life-threatening if not properly managed.

“I was diagnosed with Type 1 when I was six years old, and I had started playing piano, actually, around the same time,” Bowersox said. “Music, for me, became this cathartic way to deal with the emotions of that.” 

At first she accepted her diagnosis the way kids tend to accept whatever is thrown their way, she said. But when she got a little older, it got more difficult.

“For me it became more stressful in my adolescent years, and as a teenager, just being different than your peers and standing out.” 

The autoimmune disorder affects 1.25 million Americans, with 40,000 new cases diagnosed each year. It’s often children who receive that hard diagnosis, which is why the disease used to be called juvenile-onset diabetes. 

To Bowersox, her diabetes was one more obstacle keeping her from her goal of making music for a living.

“Being an artist is hard,” she said. “You know that you’re setting out to do something that will most likely not pay your bills. But that’s not why you do it. You do it because you have to, because it’s …just the fiber of your being.”

Bowersox gave birth to a son when she was 24, and wanted to be able to provide a better life for him. Where some people might have abandoned their dreams for something more conventional, she went all in. 

Like tens of thousands of other people around the country, she auditioned for Season 9 of American Idol. She was one of the 24 who made it onto the show. There, her dreams, and her life with Type 1, would soon receive national attention. 

“Being on American Idol in 2010, I didn’t tell the producers when I auditioned that I had Type 1 because I thought it would somehow be a disadvantage or that they’d treat me differently.”

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Crystal Bowersox performs at Camp Setebaid, a camp for children with diabetes held at Camp Swatara, on July 18, 2018. (Lisa Wardle/WITF)

Deciding to keep quiet almost ended her run on the show. With erratic film and practice schedules, Bowersox didn’t properly manage her blood glucose levels. She ended up going into diabetic ketoacidosis from prolonged high blood glucose levels.

“I was pretty sick, and I was hospitalized, and it was in a pretty public way,” she said.

The producer told her she was off the show. She insisted that she could get her blood glucose back under control and finish out the season.

She did more than that. Bowersox was the season’s runner-up. She landed a recording contract and launched a career as a songwriter and touring musician. Since then, she’s learned she can help others by being upfront about living with Type 1 diabetes.

For Mike Moyer, a strong role model like Bowersox can have a huge positive impact on children who may never have met an adult with type one diabetes. Moyer is executive director of Setabaid services, which runs the summer camp in Berks County where Bowersox appeared.

“What everyone else takes for granted, the kids with diabetes are constantly adjusting that,” he said. “So there’s a lot of stress… We take that stress off of them, because we help them do it, and they’re just like everyone else for the week.”

Bowersox said, she learns from the kids, too. Though she initially expected the children to want to talk about the complications of their diabetes, she soon realized they often wanted to talk about things like favorite video games and amusement park rides.

“We just want a chance to breathe and be normal, and that’s what they get to do here as well.”