Despite Challenges, RaeLynn, Eric Paslay and Other Stars Don't Let Type 1 Diabetes Limit Their Dreams

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RaeLynn

Every once in a while during an Eric Paslay concert, you might see him grab a cup onstage and take a swig. His fans often go wild, thinking he’s getting liquored up. In truth, the cup contains orange juice, and Paslay, who was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes (an autoimmune condition also known as juvenile diabetes) at age 10, is drinking it because he feels his blood sugar dropping. Ditto for RaeLynn. Diagnosed with the disease at 12, she also keeps juice onstage for the same purpose.

Those stars, along with such others as Nick Jonas, Bret Michaels and American Idol alum Crystal Bowersox, have leaned how to manage their disease while still enjoying successful touring and recording careers. 

RaeLynn discovered her illness the hard way as a pre-teen when a chemical imbalance from a sustained period of high blood sugar caused a potentially fatal condition called diabetic ketoacidosis and her organs began to shut down. “I was 15 minutes from dying,” she recalls. “I was so scared. I didn’t know what was happening to me.” (In people with Type 1 diabetes, the body attacks the pancreatic cells that produce insulin.)

As a teen, she found herself so embarrassed by the disease that she refused to take good care of herself. Today, she’s hoping speaking out about it can change how other children and teens view their illness and empower them to take control of it. Paslay and Bowersox echo that feeling and are likewise sharing their stories.

All three say a life on the road, coupled with an often erratic schedule, means they have to put a little more thought and effort into staying healthy by watching what they eat, monitoring their blood sugar levels and making sure they get adequate sleep and exercise. The latter can be a particular challenge, says Bowersox, when you’re “sitting in a vehicle sometimes for eight hours or more.”

A lack of sleep caused RaeLynn to make a dangerous mistake while on tour with Miranda Lambert a few years ago. She awoke and took insulin without eating anything, then fell back asleep. When she woke up again, she knew she needed to eat immediately, but on her way into a gas station to grab some food she passed out. After that, her team figured out a way to upgrade her travel situation from a van to a bus so she would have access to a kitchen and a more reliable sleeping arrangement.

While Paslay says he has never had a “call the EMT” moment onstage, he has had some episodes of feeling “pretty shaky” and finding it hard to communicate. “As a touring artist, there is no schedule other than you’ll probably play a set today,” says Paslay, who recently signed on as a spokesman for Dexcom’s G5 Mobile CGM (continuous glucose monitoring) device. The small gadget, which is attached to his abdomen with a wire and adhesive tape, sends information on his blood sugar levels to a mobile app every five minutes and sounds an alarm if it drops below a certain level. His road manager can monitor Paslay’s sugar offstage and signal him when he needs to hit the juice.

Likewise, Paslay’s wife watches his levels on her own phone at home in Nashville and will sometimes call him while he’s on the tour bus and suggest he have something to eat. The device also negates the need for him to prick his finger to test his sugar levels, something that can be difficult for a guitar player who really needs his fingertips to remain unblemished.

“I’m grateful that I was born at a time that all this technology is available,” says Paslay. Bowersox, too, is wowed by available medical devices, noting that the earliest insulin pumps were the size of backpacks, but now fit in a pocket.

Bowersox, who moved to Nashville in 2015, was diagnosed when she was just 6. The whole country became aware of her condition while she was an Idol contestant in 2010 when she was hospitalized for complications from the disease. She had one other scary episode while appearing on the show, where she finished in second place.

“We were, like, three seconds away from opening the [live] show, and my glucose sensor starts alarming. It’s dangerously low, but there’s nothing I can do,” she recalls. “So I just pushed forward and went out, did my little song and dance, and as soon as we hit commercial break I had to let someone know and they brought me juice ... It takes a little time to recover from that kind of blood sugar swing.” 

Bowersox initially didn’t tell anyone on Idol about her disease, fearing she would be treated differently. But she says now, “The thing about having Type 1 is you need support. You need your friends, your family and people around you to know what to do if anything should happen. I didn’t do that, and [with] the rigorous schedule of American Idol with rehearsals and appearances and waking up early and going to bed late, I was neglecting my diabetes and I got in trouble over that. It was a big wake-up call for me.”

RaeLynn agrees that keeping her inner circle informed of her condition and what to do in case of an episode or seizure is critical. She’s currently on a radio tour with the team from her new label home, Warner Music Nashville, and says she speaks with each regional promoter about it. Plus, she says, “my tour manager’s great at always looking for healthy places for me to eat [and] always having a backup option on the road, like a protein bar.”

Bowersox says finding the right foods to eat on tour can be difficult. “On the road, you’ve got your five major fast food chains available, and then there’s that little section at the gas station that has hard-boiled eggs and veggies,” she says. “It’s a challenge to find healthy options,” so she typically brings her own along in a cooler.

For all three artists, managing the disease has been a process of trial and error. (RaeLynn says she and Paslay love to swap stories about how different foods affect them.) All three singers have recently partnered with brands to help share the message that living a full life with diabetes is possible. Bowersox signed on as a spokesperson for diabetes care brand and commercial insulin innovator Lilly Diabetes (a division of Eli Lilly and Company). As part of her role, Bowersox toured diabetes camps around the country and spoke with campers about her experiences. Paslay’s partnership with Dexcom has him speaking and performing at conferences and events for families living with juvenile diabetes.

RaeLynn, a patient ambassador for Novo Nordisk, a healthcare company specializing in diabetes care, is relishing the opportunity to share her story and demonstrate how having diabetes “doesn’t end your dreams or affect what you’re going to do. It’s just a lifestyle change. You can do anything your heart desires and still have Type 1 diabetes.” 

Agrees Bowersox, “There aren’t any limits to your goals and dreams as long as you’re managing your health.”

This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.