Holly Wasserfall (21) lives in Westville, Durban, and is a house music singer. She has Type 1 diabetes.
It was a diabetes awareness poster, on the sick bay’s wall at the boarding school Holly attended, that led to the discovery of her diabetes. “I had been feeling unwell for a long time. While I was lying in the sick bay, I read a poster that listed the symptoms of diabetes…this made me think that I could possibly have it,” Holly says.
Holly’s mother picked her up and Holly told her that she thinks she is diabetic. After a visit to their local GP, Holly was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, at the age of 9. However, it was only at the age of 11, that Holly was diagnosed correctly with Type 1 diabetes.
“Once I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, I was put on Glucophage and a low-GI diet. I felt marginally better due to the reduced sugar and lower carbohydrate intake but I still felt somewhat unwell. I was suffering with extreme nausea and tiredness. When I went home for half-term in the first term of my grade 7 year, I was vomiting, incredibly sleepy and my vision was extremely blurry.
My mother tested my sugar but it was so high that she could not get a reading on the glucometer. She took me to the nearest doctor, who told her to rush me to the emergency room and called ahead. I was barely conscious when I was admitted to hospital. I was put under the care of a paediatric diabetologist and correctly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes,” Holly explains.
Denial vs. acceptance
At first, Holly was in complete denial. “I didn’t want to be Type 1 and the idea that I would be injecting insulin for the rest of my life was something I struggled to accept. I kept begging my mom to take me home. I stayed in hospital for almost two weeks; working with a diabetes educator and the nursing staff, learning how to inject and care for myself. At the end of the two weeks, I pretty much had it down. I think having to choose to either master my insulin therapy or leave boarding school, motivated me to accept the diagnosis and move forward,” Holly clarifies.
The young girl got through grade 7 but once she started high school, she struggled to manage her diabetes. This is where music tapped its way into her life. “The high carbohydrate diet presented so many challenges and sport was an even bigger challenge, so I focused on music and it became my coping mechanism. I eventually had to make the tough decision to leave boarding school and go to a school closer to home. Music helped me deal with everything I was going through at the time. It became my best friend,” Holly explains.
The singer started out in Afro Pop music. When she was 14, she went on tour to Cape Town and the band members introduced her to house music. “That was it! Game over! I fell madly in love with house music and the rest is history,” Holly says.
“I started working with some of the pioneers on the Durban house scene, which allowed me to grow and become an artist with a deeper understanding of the evolution of house music, from songwriting to production.”
The ambitious teenager not only recorded her second album during her matric year but released it shortly after matriculating with 8 distinctions.
Sink or swim
Did it ever cross the Durbanite’s mind that her diabetes would stop her from achieving her dream? “No,” she says, “I just found ways to get around any challenges. The music industry is tough and unforgiving; you must be prepared for everything and anything that is thrown at you. It’s just the nature of the beast. Sink or swim. In many ways, diabetes made me tougher and helped me prepare better because you can’t drive to a performance in Nongoma without plan 1,2 or 3 in place, and then a backup plan for the backup plan.”
How does the music industry view diabetes? Holly explains, “The industry is generally accepting but promoters and stakeholders generally want their pound of flesh. There is very little room for self-pity, you must suck it up and keep moving. I am 100% open about being diabetic because I don’t believe I should be apologetic. I believe that openness raises awareness, but I take care of my own needs without any fuss.”
Holly’s tech rider request is sugar-free drinks and bottled water. She travels everywhere with a cooler box with whatever she needs for that day. If catering is provided at events, she makes the best choices she can, depending what is on offer. She will always test her glucose before going on stage. If her sugar levels are low, she will drink a fruit juice or have a snack from her cooler box. Often, when the singer comes off stage, her glucose level is high due to the adrenalin rush and a shot of short-acting insulin is needed.
Performing on the 2015 Cape Town Jazz Festival main stage, when she was just 17 years old, was a ‘seriously big deal’ for her. ‘It still is the biggest moment in my career. Second to that is performing at the Umgababa New Year Picnic to a crowd of 35 000 plus. Mandoza was the headline act but he had to get to another show, so the programme director slotted him in before me. It was insane to get onto the stage after Mandoza. I really thought I was going to crash and burn but somehow, I managed to capture the crowd and maintain the buzz. It was an insane moment for me.”
Currently, the 21-year-old is on insulin pens (Lantus and Aphidra) but is contemplating going on to an insulin pump as when she was first diagnosed, her specialist picked up that she has dawn phenomenon and more recently this has started to play a bigger role in her control.
Regarding fitness, Holly has a personal trainer who visits her my home three times a week. She follows a Paleo-based diet, combined with elements from the Gut Diet, eating hormone-free and genetically modified organism-free organic food. Visit grassfedgirl.com for more information on eating clean.
Don’t hide your condition
Holly is a strong believer in not concealing that you have diabetes, adding “You don’t need to broadcast it but make people aware of it. It’s not only for your own benefit but important that more people become activists for Type 1s. The more we educate people about the disease, the better it is for the future generation of diabetic patients. We need to educate the public that Type 1 is very different to Type 2, and that Type 1 is not caused by bad eating habits. There is a stigma about diabetes that can only be broken down by creating more awareness.”