Type 1 Diabetes Didn’t Stop This Opera Singer From Living Her Dream
Louisa Waycott was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just a week after she and her family moved to a new town—but she never let that, or any other obstacles, get in the way of pursuing what she loved.
When Louisa Waycott was 12, her family moved from Sao Paulo, Brazil, to Sun Valley, Idaho. It was a huge change for her—leaving the populated, vibrant city she grew up in for a ski town where she and her family didn't know anyone "I was in a new place, with no friends," Waycott tells Health. "A total fish out of water."
But that wouldn't be the only change Waycott would face: Just a week after she started at her new school in Sun Valley, she had a medical emergency. While taking a shower, Waycott began feeling lightheaded and fainted, collapsing on her bathroom floor. When she woke up, she struggled to get to her feet and was rushed off to urgent care. She doesn't remember much about that experience. "I was in and out," she says. "But the one thing I do remember was that they had a really hard time finding a vein [to draw blood]."
Her eventual diagnosis: type 1 diabetes, a chronic condition in which a person's body—specifically the pancreas—doesn't make (or makes very little) insulin, a hormone that helps your body use the glucose in your body for energy. Without it, too much glucose can stay in your blood, leading to serious issues in nearly every part of the body—your heart, eyes, kidneys, nerves, gums, and teeth, according to the US National Library of Medicine's MedlinePlus resource.
Waycott, now 31 and an opera singer at the Washington National Opera, struggled with her diagnosis at first—especially as a new kid at a new school, now with a new disease. She says she felt like she had done something wrong to get that kind of diagnosis, and so was reluctant to mention it. But during class one day, she and her classmates were watching a documentary that mentioned type 1 diabetes, the same disease she had just been diagnosed with, and she decided to open up to a classmate about it.
It didn't turn out the way she'd hoped. "I told someone I thought was going to be my friend and they basically stopped talking to me," she says. "That was a tough way for me to start off with diabetes, and I think I decided it would be better to keep it hidden as much as possible."
That proved to be harder than it sounded. In high school, Waycott began using a device to monitor her blood sugar, and it was difficult to hide the wires while playing volleyball and skiing—two teams she was on. "I would try to hide the pump in my bra and there would be lots of comments about that from other girls," she says. "They didn't know I had diabetes. It was just typical high school drama."
Throughout high school though, Waycott was a very active teenager. "To be honest, I had a long honeymoon period where my diabetes wasn't really causing any major health problems," she says. It wasn't until she got to college, studying opera at the University of Mississippi, when she started to experience some of the telltale symptoms often associated with type 1 diabetes, like fatigue and unexpected changes in weight.
Because Waycott didn't experience a ton of symptoms during high school, it was rough for her to come to terms with them. "It was hard for me because I felt a lot of shame around diabetes," she says. "I had been bullied when I was younger so I spent a lot of time hiding it from people or going to the gym because I wanted people to see me as a strong person and not a weak, sick person."
Despite the impact diabetes had on her life, Waycott was determined not to let it dissuade her from pursuing her dreams of being an opera singer. "I tried a regular lifestyle: A nine to five job, where I knew when I could eat all my meals, when I could go to the gym, how much sleep I would get, because the most helpful thing in managing diabetes was a routine," she says. "But it just didn't work for me. It wasn't how I needed to live to be truly happy and so I realized, whether it was working or hiking, I needed to bring diabetes along with me."
But even bringing her diabetes along for the ride was difficult at times. When Waycott was working in Italy—trying to maintain a balance between her diabetes and a hectic lifestyle of auditions, classes, rehearsals, and live performances—struggling to manage her physical and mental health became too much to handle.
"I was having a really hard time. My weight was fluctuating. Which is a struggle as someone in the performing arts where you're so often judged by your appearance," she says. "And I was still so ashamed of having diabetes. I wasn't really talking about and I certainly didn't know anyone else who had it."
That's the point when Waycott realized she couldn't do this alone, and needed help. She ended up finding a life coach in Italy to help her learn how to accept and manage her disease. "I was here in Italy, trying to keep it together, and up pops Lauren Bongiorno, a fellow type 1 diabetic and life coach. We ended up working together for two years and in that time I learned how much I'd been blocking my diabetes," she says. "Working with [Bongiorno] and having someone to talk to about what was happening really helped me learn acceptance." Through Bongiorno, Waycott was also able to discover a community of other women with diabetes going through the same struggles.
Waycott has now been at the Washington National Opera for three years—and she's learned how to marry her diabetes with her work and personal life. Her cast mates know she has diabetes and many of them carry snacks for her and know designated spaces where she can sit when she needs a break. It's the kind of support that she wishes she had when she was younger.
Her career has taken her all over the world and given her tons of amazing opportunities—despite her condition (she's even performed in front of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg). But it was a much smaller stage where she recently experienced how much her job can impact others—and how grateful she is to do it.
"We were doing small outdoor concerts in Sun Valley with just me and a couple of musicians and a few people, including grown men, were coming up afterwards to share how the music impacted them on an emotional level," she says. "One woman had been struggling with the loss of her husband and said she felt a sense of closure after hearing one of the songs. It was a humbling reminder of why I love what I do."
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