Britain’s Got Talent star Tom Ball on living with diabetes

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West Sussex-based Britain’s Got Talent star Tom Ball, with a debut album coming out and his music career taking off phenomenally, says he feels a responsibility to talk publicly about a happy and successful life lived despite years of diabetes.

Former teacher Tom, from Burgess Hill and now living in Handcross, credits the incredible new 'artificial pancreas' technology for so much of what he has been able to achieve. He wants to use the platform his music has given him to offer a message of hope on the back of it.

“I've got the platform that I'm so lucky to have and if I started displaying an unhealthy way of living with diabetes perhaps it would encourage young people to do the same. I can't do that. I've got to be a role model for newly-diagnosed people and I want to be able to show people that you can do anything you want to, that you can really move forward in a positive way and that I'm 100 per cent fine so long as I do what I have to do.

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“I was diagnosed when I was eight years old. There was no one else in my family that had type-one diabetes. We were just not expecting it but I was displaying all the classic symptoms of tiredness and I was really thirsty and I needed the toilet a lot and I was becoming very thin. I lost a lot of weight. I think it was my granddad that pointed it out my mum. When you're living with someone, you don't necessarily notice that. I was quickly taken to A&E and I was quickly diagnosed. We were very fortunate to have a diagnosis so quickly and I was very lucky to be diagnosed before I needed severe medical attention. There is no cure and you really don't know why it happens. It is nothing to do with the lifestyle. It's an autoimmune disease.

Tom Ball (contributed pic)Tom Ball (contributed pic)
Tom Ball (contributed pic)

“When I was first diagnosed they had to be really structured with me, and I found it all a bit more limited then in what I could do, but the technology has changed so much since then. It hasn't really stopped me at all. As long as I am prepared, I can be as spontaneous as I want.”

That's the crucial thing: spontaneity is perfectly possible. You just have to be prepared for it. As Tom says if he was told to jump into a plane to go off to New Zealand to perform at the drop of a hat, he wouldn't be able to do it. But day to day he is fine. There will be bad days but there will also be good days.

“I struggled to begin with with the injections. That was a massive lifestyle change but I think actually it's harder at that age for the parents. But I quickly took responsibility. By the time I was ten or 11 I was doing all my own injections and blood tests, with the support of my parents. I decided I wanted to take as much control as I possibly could. I found that it was useful in terms of feeling like I was winning control over the condition rather than it controlling me. It doesn't always work. As I say there are bad days but there are also great days, and the medical technology is amazing.”

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The so-called artificial pancreas technology is with Tom 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A multitude of factors that can cause changes to blood sugar levels are monitored by it including stress, fatigue, environment, weather, season, travel etc… all things that would have made being able to tour (Tom’s just finished a UK tour) absolutely impossible previously.

The great news is that tens of thousands of people with type-one diabetes in England are now going to be offered the new technology in a major new NHS roll-out. The system uses a glucose sensor under the skin to automatically calculate how much insulin is delivered via a pump. The NHS is already contacting adults and children who could benefit from the system.

Tom said: “The artificial pancreas is a massive step forward. I don't have to be constantly thinking about it. In effect I've got something else that is supporting me. There are still worries about severe illness and everything else that goes with type-one diabetes, but it is like a 24-hour assistant!”

It also helps of course that Tom's moved way beyond past thoughts of ‘Why me?’: “After a while you realise it doesn't really help to be thinking ‘Why me?’ The fact is that I've got it. I quickly got to the point where thinking ‘Why me?’ really doesn't help. I think you have got to accept it.”

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And accept with it something like an extra 300 decisions that you have to make a day if you've got type-one diabetes: “You will be making decisions about what food, what the temperature is, what your stress levels are and what sleep and what fluids and what exercise. If I'm going to go for a walk, I have to think what I will take with me, and when I am travelling around the world I have to have a whole suitcase filled with diabetes supplies. There is really probably hardly an hour that I don't think about it.

“But the lovely thing is that the diabetes community, as I've discovered so much more in recent years, is really, lovely full of the most positive and resilient people. You have to be a pretty special person to cope with diabetes. It is relentless and it’s savage but I have found that the diabetes community is full of people that are happy and light-hearted and positive. And that's a massive help.”

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