Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, Thomas, 27, would need to inject himself with insulin three times a day for the rest of his life or risk kidney failure, blindness, nerve damage, amputations, and even death. And if that weren’t bad enough, he had no health insurance.
After a month of feeling sucker punched, Thomas decided he’d better find a way to fight back. He packed up his car and left Canton, Michigan, for New York. He found a sublet, got a job waiting tables, nicknamed himself the Diabetic Rockstar, and created diabeticrockstar.com, a free online community for diabetics and their loved ones—a place where over 1,100 people share personal stories, information, and resources.
Jason Swencki is a software developer whose son, Kody, was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at age six. Father and son visit the online children’s forums together most evenings. “Kody gets so excited, writing to kids from all over,” says Swencki, 36, who has become one of the site’s volunteer administrators. “They know what he’s going through, so he doesn’t feel alone.”
Kody is anything but alone: Diabetes is now the seventh leading cause of death in the United States, with 24 million diagnosed cases. And more people are being diagnosed at younger ages.
These days, Thomas’s main focus is his charity, Fight It, which provides medications and supplies to people—225 to date—who can’t afford a diabetic’s considerable expenses ($4,174 per year on average). “There’s the father of three whose oldest daughter is diabetic. He works two jobs to pay for testing strips, and he’s having trouble putting food on the table,” Thomas says. “Because of testing strips? C’mon, that’s not right.”
Fight-it.org has raised about $23,000—in products (through partnerships with companies like American Diabetes Wholesale and 77 Canada Pharmacy) and in cash (through individual donations and proceeds from Fight It/Rock-star clothing, wristbands, and rock concerts). In May, Thomas will hold the first annual Diabetic Rockstar Carnival cruise in the Caribbean.
Even with a staff of 22 volunteers, Thomas often devotes up to 50 hours a week to his cause, while still holding down his full-time job waiting tables. “Of the diabetes charities out there, most are putting money into finding a cure,” says Bentley Gubar, 48, one of Rockstar’s original members, who also has type 1 diabetes. “But Chris is the only person I know saying people need help now.”