Today is World Diabetes Day! In New York City, and around the globe, hundreds of monuments will be lit up in deep sky blue to turn the spotlight on this devastating condition.
Elliott Yamin, the American-Idol-borne pop star who’s stepped out recently as a huge diabetes advocate (he was diagnosed with Type I at age of 16) will be singing today on the UN lawn. Man, I wish I could be there! Because after our recent telephone interview, his raspy voice and gritty street-smarts about living with diabetes kind of got to me.
God knows this isn’t the first interview with Elliott on diabetes. He was on the cover of Diabetes Forecast last month, and talked to Diabetes Health magazine last year. But I like to think this earthy, Rhythm & Blues sensation was just a little bit more candid with a homespun diabetes blogger like me.
Elliott, you dropped out of high school early, right? Was your diagnosis at age 16 part of that?
I dropped out of high school because I was a knucklehead. I’m more of a dreamer than a doer. School just wasn’t my cup of tea. I learned a lot of things on my own. I’ve always like to work hard. It’s just part of my life. I started working and earning my own keep earlier than a lot of others.
I think sometimes to experience the best of things, you have to experience the worst. I was skipping injections. I was passing out and ending up in ER. I don’t know if I hit one single rock-bottom moment, but it was a mess.
I didn’t really start to shape up till I met my friend Harvey at work who was using an insulin pump. I saw how helpful it was, but also how disciplined you have to be. My doctor wouldn’t put me on it unless I could show that I was maintaining my blood glucose levels, learning to count carbs, bringing my A1c level down. This enabled me to get on the pump, at about age 21, and ever since then I haven’t had any bad spells.
If you could go back now, what would you say to your 16-year-old self?
I would grab myself and shake myself a lot. And I’d say: “Dude, get a grip on your life. You’re going to be a man soon. You’re already the man of the house. Start taking care of yourself!” It’d be all tough love.
This may sound silly, but what bugs you the most about having diabetes?
What’s the most annoying thing? I’d like to just be able to sit down and eat whatever I want and physically feel OK. I’d like to feel uninhibited for once, without the ramifications… You know, like eat a couple slices of pizza be able to feel like a normal person.
The high blood glucose, the low blood glucose — it’s all a pain in the butt. I could really do without jabbing myself with needles all the time. The pump helps a lot.
So where do you hide your pump?
I don’t hide it anywhere. It’s right on my belt. You can see it my concert pictures, when I’m jumping around it’s bobbing around with me.
I meet so many fans who have diabetes. We like to compare pumps, and we take pictures… we did that last night in fact!
Does your diabetes experience play into your music at all?
It’s a part of my makeup, part of who I am. It built a lot of character, for who I am now. That comes out in the way I write. There are some inspiring songs on my new record –- a song called FREE for one, about how nothing’s impossible. You can achieve the unexplainable…
So you told Diabetes Forecast magazine that you want to help get research dollars to the right place, toward a cure. That’s a big concern. How will you go about it?
I think there’s a web site on how the funds are being monitored (note: for example, HERE). I don’t know that much about it. I do know that we can make a difference in people’s lives just by just being part of different charities and fundraising events.
Right now I’m representing Inspired by Diabetes sponsored by Eli Lilly, which is a creative expression competition where people can express themselves in art, words, pictures, and of course, music. There are all kinds of great prizes, backstage passes and such.
I know we’re making a difference with this program because with every entry, the sponsor Eli Lilly provides insulin and supplies to kids in 13 different countries around the world. Lilly is also offering money for scholarships to diabetes camps.
I’m trying to do my part to help raise money that will directly raise the quality of life for people with diabetes. There are people right now at this very second who’s blood sugars are so high –- dangerously high –- because they don’t have access to insulin.
I can’t imagine my life without insulin. I wouldn’t survive –- wouldn’t be able to be an advocate, to share my gift with the word.
It’s a shame how medicine is so privileged right now. So many people don’t have access to the medicine they need to survive…
So you didn’t have any qualms about telling the Idol producers and team that you had diabetes?
Not at all. I made sure I told all the powers that be, and made sure I had what I needed: snacks and sugar on the set if I needed it.
When I started to get the media attention, I thought from the very beginning that this is it. This is my chance to help make a difference in a disease that I have –- that so many people have and suffer from. It’s been great.
OK, so nobody’s perfect. What are some of your favorite “taboo” foods?
I have a weakness for Little Debby strawberry shortcake rolls, if you really want to know. Right now I’m also trying to stay away from caffeine. It’s a guilty pleasure. My cousin in North Carolina brought me a whole basket of fresh baked cookies a few weeks ago. I got to try a few, but mostly the band ate them up.
I’m also a pretty active guy, thankfully. I do situps, toss the football around with the crew, and of course, perform on stage. That’s pretty strenuous. Oh, and I do those Perfect Pushups. You’ve seen the infomercials. (raspy laugh)
Any tips and tricks for people with extremely busy schedules on managing their diabetes?
I’d say, you have to deal with it now, because if you don’t, it will get you later. A lot of people ignore it, like I did. It’s easy to get caught up in our everyday routines, busy lifestyles… but I know especially having the pump makes me pay attention. Because it’s there. On my body. Every day when I get dressed, come out of shower… I can’t go anywhere without it. It reminds me that I need to take time out of the day for myself.
Even if you’re not feeling it now, diabetes really does affect you in the long-term. Diabetes is a leading cause off all kinds of other problems with your body — heart, liver, eyes. I’d say: Understand how important it is in the long run!
Thank you very kindly, Elliott. I’ll hear your music with a real sense of kinship now. And I’ll send any kids I know with diabetes straight to your story.
(Editor’s Note: Catch the video feeds of today’s events HERE)