Casey Abrams’ encore to his successful Season 10 appearance on American Idol has nothing to do with music, and everything to do with health.
The 20-year-old Californian who wowed audiences with his stand-up base playing and famously planted a kiss on judge Jennifer Lopez’s lips after a particularly glowing performance is speaking up about his struggle with ulcerative colitis, a type of bowel disease affecting millions of Americans.
While UC is not fatal, a flare-up of the disease caused Casey to be hospitalized twice during the Idol competition—first following his initial live appearance for audience votes. “That moment, the very first time I was live and people could vote, I was having so many cramps,” he says. “I was losing so much blood … I needed to get some iron in me, I needed to get a blood transfusion.”
Ulcerative colitis is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), the incidence of which has grown by approximately 20 percent in the last decade, says Dr. David Schwartz, director of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Center at VanderbiltUniversity Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn. Ulcerative colitis and the other major form of IBD, Crohn’s disease, are most commonly diagnosed in people from their late teens to early 30s. The disease causes the immune system to attack the intestines. Symptoms include diarrhea, abdominal pain and blood in the stool, which can be triggered by foods—Casey has had flare-ups associated with eating cheese, nuts and his favorite spicy Indian foods—ibuprofen and antibiotic use, as well as stress.
Indeed, it was stress that triggered the flare-up that led to Casey’s hospitalization during American Idol, and another requiring a second transfusion and causing him to miss a results show later in the season. His physical condition was so precarious that he was concerned he might not be able to endure Idol’s grueling rehearsals and performances. “That’s basically what I was thinking the whole time,” he says. Against the advice of his doctor, who said he had a 50 percent chance of collapsing on stage, Casey persisted, making it to the final six before being eliminated by audience vote.
“I think I was a little too willing to sacrifice my health to be on that stage,” he says. “I went up there, I did it, because this is the one thing that I love, this is the one thing that, to be honest, it’s probably going to be the peak of my life.”
He credits the support of his fellow contestants—and judges Lopez, Stephen Tyler and Randy Jackson—for helping him through. “Thank God Simon wasn’t there,” Casey says of the sharp-tongued Simon Cowell, one of the show’s founders and former judges.
Casey first experienced UC symptoms after graduating high school and enrolling at Colorado University-Boulder in 2009. (“A lot of Cs and Us in my life,” he jokes. “UC? CU?”) The stress of the new environment, he and his doctors believe, triggered the disease. “I was going to the bathroom 10 to 14 times a day, and a lot of it had blood in the stool,” he says. “I thought it was just a bug or something; then a week passed, then two weeks. I couldn’t carry my bass across campus without getting winded, and I was losing a lot of weight.”
A visit to the doctor yielded a diagnosis. “All of a sudden they say, ‘You’ve got ulcerative colitis.” And I was like, ‘I don’t even know what that is,’” he says.
Casey’s quick trip from symptoms to diagnosis to treatment isn’t typical of most colitis and Crohn’s sufferers, says Schwartz. “Because of the symptoms that go along with it, people are reluctant to tell their doctor,” he says. Plus, doctors may mistakenly diagnose irritable bowel syndrome, which is more common. “The typical delay is about three to five years from onset of symptoms.”
Casey first disclosed his condition publicly after his hospitalization was reported by the gossip website TMZ. While the publicity was difficult, he says, “it was a kick in the butt to talk about it.”
Now touring the country with the American Idols LIVE 2011 Tour, Casey has connected with scores of fans who have the condition in person and via Twitter and Facebook. “A lot of the people I’ve been meeting have had it six more years than I’ve had it, so to be honest, I’m trying to teach the world but the world is teaching me.”
Casey’s encouraging those he meets to share their stories on IBDicons.com. Entrants have a chance to win a trip to the Zappos.com Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon & ½ Marathon to benefit the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation of America. Finalists will appear on the website this fall; voters will choose the winner. For every vote cast, Janssen Biotech, Inc. will make a $1 contribution to the CCFA, up to $10,000.
While his musical future may be unclear (“I’m talking to Randy Jackson, but I still don’t know,” he says), he seems content performing with his fellow Idol alumni and using his fame for a higher purpose. “There’s way better people than me to be the spokesperson; I just happen to be on TV,” he says. “Sure I could do an album, sure I could maybe try to be in a movie, but this is a disease I have and I feel like I have to make it right for the 1.4 million people in America that have this disease.”