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Diabetes Forecast

The Healthy Living Magazine

Nick Jonas: Raising a Pop Star With Diabetes

Here's how his mom says they make it work

By Carolyn Butler , ,

The tweenage girls are shrieking and shaking and hyperventilating—thousands of them, all focused on the stage at the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Va., where 15-year-old Nick Jonas sits alone at a white baby grand. The mop-topped, baby-faced rocker's mother, Denise Jonas, is also at the gig, but she can't bear to watch. Because amid the screeches and frantic shouts ("Marry me, Nick!"), her son launches into a solo version of "A Little Bit Longer," his new song about being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

Got the news today
But they said I had to stay
A little bit longer
And I'll be fine
When I thought it'd all been done
When I thought it'd all been said
A little bit longer
And I'll be fine

"I usually leave because it's hard on me," says Denise, backstage, her voice breaking and eyes watering. Although it's been nearly three years, the shock of the diagnosis and its fallout is all too fresh. "I know he's still really hurting over it. We all are."

But you don't know what you got
'Til it's gone
And you don't know what it's like
To feel so low
Every time you smile or laugh you glow
You don't even know
No, no
You don't even know…

The Jonas Brothers were just another pop-rock boy band on the rise back in the fall of 2005, out on a grueling and decidedly unglamorous anti-drug tour of public high schools, when Nick—at 13, the baby of the group, which also includes older siblings Kevin and Joe—started to exhibit some seriously out-of-character behavior: mood swings, extreme thirst, frequent bathroom breaks, and sudden weight loss. Pretty clear symptoms of diabetes, in retrospect, but at the time "the signs were hard to recognize, based on this very strenuous travel schedule and lack of sleep, and knowing that Nicholas was also in his puberty stage," says Denise, who was at home in Wyckoff, N.J., with youngest son, Frankie, and often away from her other children for several days in a row. But she continued to notice worrisome changes: "You just see somebody turn the exact opposite of what they are, and really quick." At the same time, Nick seemed to be in a remarkable growth spurt. "Every time I would see him, I thought 'Wow, you grew so much in seven days,'" recalls Denise. It looked like he was getting taller, but in fact, her son was just getting thinner, because his body wasn't processing needed glucose. "His blood sugar was rising, and I didn't know."

That is, until a rare week off at a family retreat center in Pennsylvania that November. Nick drank eight glasses of chocolate milk and threw up in the hotel lobby; he was lethargic and temperamental; and then, one night, Denise caught a glimpse of her son in his pajama bottoms. "I said to my husband, 'He looks like he's a prisoner of war—he has no muscle tone—everything's gone.'" The next morning, the Jonases drove three hours home to visit their family pediatrician, who did a quick finger stick and immediately sent them to the hospital. Nick's blood glucose was over 700.

In the car on the way to the emergency room, Nicholas was in tears. "Am I going to die?" he asked. And what could his parents say? They had no experience of diabetes, no family history—nothing to tell them what was to come in the next few hours, to say nothing of the days and weeks and years ahead. "You think, 'What did I do?'" recalls Denise. "All that overwhelming guilt, as a parent, comes rushing in." The truth is, it doesn't matter who you are or whether your kid's a rock star or not: The moment of diagnosis is like an asteroid falling to earth—and by the way, it's falling directly on your family. There is no way that things will ever be the same again.

And yet, as a parent, you do what needs to be done. Nick's two days in the hospital turned into a crash course in type 1, from the ER doctor's simple drawing of a pancreas on a legal pad (Denise still has the sketch) to meetings with nutritionists and a nurse practitioner who taught the entire family how to give insulin injections. The Jonases also met with a social worker, which Denise resented at the time. "I thought it was offensive—kind of invasive and weird—and yet I'm so grateful now," she says. "She was the one who said 'You know you're dealing with all these emotions—dealing with grief, dealing with loss, probably feeling anger,'" which Denise says she desperately needed to hear—and to talk about.

Nick was back on tour a couple of days later, checking his blood glucose a dozen times a day and getting injections of insulin—sometimes in the van on the way from one gig to another. There were other unique challenges to learning to manage diabetes on the road, too, like watching carbs when it's fast food on the menu. "I was terrified, sending him off like that, and on the phone constantly with whoever was with him … always wanting to know what the numbers were," recalls Denise, who spent hours trying to record her son's food intake and glucose levels and faxing or e-mailing reports to his doctors and nurses, even when she wasn't traveling with the band. Thankfully, she says, her son took a big role in his own treatment from the start: "Nicholas is so self-sufficient, even at that age he was quick to learn how to give himself shots … And I wanted him to take over because I knew I wasn't going to be around him all the time."

Although Nick is now doing great—he's on an insulin pump, his A1C has come down significantly, and his blood glucose is typically in his target range—his mom remains vigilant. "We're kind of moving out of the honeymoon stage, as they say, and I see things affect him—emotions sometimes make him drop—and this is a very emotional time," she says. "This tour, he's had lows just before he's gone on, quite a number of times, which makes me nervous when he's up there," she adds, explaining that Nick typically sets his basal to temporary when he's performing, because he's exerting so much energy. Regardless, there are multiple safety precautions in place: Various people on stage and behind the scenes carry glucagon, fruit snacks, and an extra pump with them, including the band's security team, the family's assistant, and both Denise and her husband. There are also cartons of apple juice stashed everywhere, just in case. "Luckily, we don't struggle with real highs and real lows, for the most part, and if there's ever something going on, we usually figure it out [relatively quickly]," says Denise. As Nick puts it, "Thankfully, I have never had anything scary happen on stage."

Back in Virginiaa at the Jonas Brothers' sold-out "Look Me in the Eyes Tour" stop, you'd never know that there's anything wrong with Nick, who does countless radio interviews, signs piles of autographs, breezes though sound check, and hangs out with friends and family on the tour bus and backstage, stopping only to check his blood glucose a few times throughout the afternoon, and then again before a pre-show meal of chicken and corn on the cob washed down with sugar-free soda. After some quiet time, he does one final finger stick—to "make sure I'm ready for the show"—and then grabs his Gibson guitar. He walks onstage with his brothers, straight into an arena full of 10,000 crazed, love-struck fans and their mostly bemused parents, and starts to rock out. Nick owns the stage—he plays guitar, drums, and piano; sings and runs and jumps; and even performs a no-handed cartwheel, as the crowd screams and chants along until it's hard to hear anything but a dull ringing in your ears that lasts for hours afterwards.

This is full-fledged pop-rock pandemonium, and it's what Nicholas Jonas turns out to have been destined for. He was discovered back home in northern New Jersey—where Denise was a stay-at-home mother and dad Kevin was a pastor (both had musical backgrounds, too)—while accompanying his mom to the hair salon. A fellow patron heard him sing and suggested that Denise take him to see her son's agent. After some voice training, 7-year-old Nicholas landed the part of Young Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" at Madison Square Garden. Next came Broadway roles in "Beauty and the Beast," "Les Miserables," and other big shows, and a contract with Columbia Records. His brothers signed on too, and began writing, playing, and recording their unique brand of squeaky-clean, punk-influenced music. Although Columbia dropped the group in early 2007, they were almost immediately picked up by Disney's Hollywood Records, which released their eponymous second album, a number 5 debut on the Billboard 200 chart that soon went platinum.

This winter, the brothers went on tour with label mate—and supreme teen queen—Miley Cyrus. With her endorsement, they were made men, this generation's shaggy-haired, skinny-tie-and-jeans-clad answer to a long tradition of wildly successful boy bands going back to Hanson, New Kids on the Block, the Bee Gees, and, yes, the Beatles. The band's third album, "A Little Bit Longer," is scheduled for release in August, and they're out on "The Burning Up Tour" through the end of the summer. And after a spectacularly successful turn in the recent Disney Channel movie Camp Rock, the trio will start filming a new series called J.O.N.A.S.! for the network this fall.

It all seems so inevitable now—The Jonas Brothers are on MTV! The Jonas Brothers do Oprah! The Jonas Brothers play the annual Easter Egg Roll at the White House! But their future didn't always look this certain, and so when Nick was first diagnosed, the family kept his condition as quiet as possible. "We didn't know what kind of reaction we would get from his record label," says Denise. "We thought, 'They might drop us if they think he's ill.'" It took a year and a half for the budding rock star to announce publicly that he has type 1, but he's been an outspoken advocate and role model for children and teens with the disease ever since. The Jonas Brothers' foundation, Change for the Children (www.changeforthechildren.com), is now committed to raising funds and awareness for diabetes; this tour, they're also giving young people with type 1 concert tickets and the chance to meet Nick, who's always got a supply of personalized guitar picks to share.

A lot has changed for the Jonas family over the last three years—for one thing, being constantly trailed by the aforementioned throngs of squealing, hysterical, crying girls. "Not being able to go out and do things in public is a little freaky," admits Denise in a quiet moment backstage. "You can't be prepared for diabetes—and you can't be prepared for that! And yet you can't complain about [the fans] because it's part of what you're doing." Other adjustments are tougher. "I think we've had to become a bit more sensitive to each other" since Nick's diagnosis, says the petite 42-year-old, who's dressed in jeans and a colorful H&M top and looks far too young to be the mother of four boys aged 7 to 20. One big issue was that his brothers kept asking whether he was "high," as in elevated blood glucose. "He gets so mad at that—it's so insensitive," says Denise. "I mean, most of the time it was true, but it was, like, so insensitive." While touring, the family's also had to get used to giving Nick a bit more space, of all sorts. "Especially in the beginning, Nicholas was getting a lot of leg cramps, because we were traveling in cramped spaces, and he'd get the best bunk or the large seat in the vehicle; he'd get preference based on his illness and it was hard at first," remembers mom. "And there are times now I don't want him cramped because he's growing, he's getting as tall as his brothers, and I know we have to give him more space—and give him a little more head space, too."

In fact, the biggest shift for Denise has been "knowing that Nick was such an easygoing, great person—wonderful—before, and now being more sensitive and giving him that [head] space" when he's feeling irritable or upset, she says. "For me, it's feeling like I'll never have that same boy back." Here, her voice wavers and her eyes well again, for just a moment, before she laughs, explaining that "not knowing 'wait, is this puberty, or is this diabetes?' That is the biggest challenge, I tell you!"

The family recently relocated to Los Angeles, where they live together, have dinner together whenever possible, and plan vacations together—basically maintaining as normal a life as one can in the heady early days of a blockbuster music career. Denise and her husband, Frank Sr., now the boys' co-manager, "have always had a great, strong value system," she says. "Discipline was important because without boundaries there's chaos." All three older boys wear "purity" rings, signifying their intent to remain virgins until marriage. "We aren't raising children, my husband and I always say, we're raising men—they're going to be men and adults longer than children, so let's prepare them for life and adulthood, because that's what they're going to do and be for most of their life," says Denise. Considering what keeps the trio of young rock stars so darn nice, polite, and modest, she credits "just being a family. Just reminding them they're not solo or independent—they need us and we need them and they need each other. And they need to clean up the bus!"

But that doesn't mean her job is easy. "There are days … where I find myself being really hard on myself; I think 'I'm such a bad parent, I'm not paying attention' because our life can be so busy. And if Nick has a low I think 'Oh my God, why did this happen?' and I wasn't there when he ate dinner in catering and I'm over here doing this or whatever, and yet I'm not inattentive," she says, and really, she sounds like she could be any parent of any kid with type 1. "You can't smother them and yet you can't leave or abandon them either." In Nick's opinion, his diagnosis has only brought him and his mother closer together. Their relationship is "definitely stronger and more supportive," he says. "My mom … has worked hard to educate herself on my needs and diet. She is always watching me and caring."

Back onstage ina Virginia, Nick is joined by his brothers and the rest of the band for a full-blown jam to wind up "A Little Bit Longer," as the packed house sings along:

All this time goes by
Still no reason why
A little bit longer
And I'll be fine
Waitin' on a cure
But none of them are sure
A little bit longer
And I'll be fine

But you don't know what you got
'Til it's gone
And you don't know what it's like
To feel so low
And every time you smile or laugh you glow
You don't even know
No no
You don't even know
No no

Then he stops singing for a minute, to talk about diabetes and to offer some words of encouragement to other kids with type 1, and to the rest of the crowd, too: "You know, sometimes life brings up its complications—throws you an unexpected curveball. … In September we were up in Canada shooting a movie called Camp Rock and I was having one of those days where I just needed a little bit of hope, so I sat down and wrote this song. And I know that there are some of you in the audience tonight who just need a little bit of hope, am I right? Some of you just need a friend. Disappointment after disappointment. Well then, tonight, this song's for you. This song is for every broken heart, for every lost dream, for every high and for every low, and tonight, this song's for you."

His mom still can't bring herself to listen, but she also couldn't be more proud. "I know who he is and know that he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to, so I don't think that he will ever allow diabetes, or anything else, to slow him down," she says.

Nick wails on the piano and finishes up: "So I wait 'til kingdom come, all the highs and lows are gone, a little bit longer, and I'll be fine," he croons, softly, wistfully, and most of all, convincingly. "I'll be fine."

Parental Confidential
Denise Jonas's advice for moms and dads

Never let 'em see you sweat. "Be a source of encouragement to your child and don't let them see you [get] nervous, because it makes them uncomfortable. They need you to be secure so they can stay secure."
Take it one day at a time. "You can't be overwhelmed with the carb count for tomorrow before you get there. You just need to be careful to manage each day … and know that it's going to get better, and just keep your head up."
Ignore grumpiness—or at least try to! "Just really be patient and understanding, especially because the mood swings—the blood sugar mood swings … can be tough."
It's okay to worry about the future. "I think about how this will affect Nick as he grows into adulthood a lot … you know he needs his fingers to do what he does, he needs his toes, and if we don't keep his A1C in good place, in 10 or 20 years he could [be in trouble] … and he's not thinking about that, because he's young. But it's always in my mind."

All About the Brothers

Paul Kevin Jonas Jr.

Guitar, background vocals
Goes By: Kevin
Born: Nov. 5, 1987 (20)
Favorite Food: Sushi
Favorite Hobbies: Guitar and painting
Favorite Movie: About a Boy

Joseph Adam Jonas

Lead vocals, tambourine
Goes By: Joe
Born: Aug. 15, 1989 (18)
Favorite Sport: Football
Currently on his iPod: Band of Horses

Nicholas Jerry Jonas

Lead vocals, guitar, piano, drums
Goes By: Nick
Born: Sept. 16, 1992 (15)
Favorite Food: Cuban sandwich
Favorite Movie: Juno
Currently on his iPod: Robert Randolph and the Family Band; Prince

Franklin Nathaniel Jonas

Drums
Goes By: Frankie, aka "the bonus Jonas"
Born: Sept. 28, 2000 (7)
Band: Drop/Slap
 
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