They were performances to remember for 16-year-old Rachel Rhee, who played the lead role of Deloris in the Emerson Junior/Senior High School version of the hit movie, Sister Act. Not only were her fans at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center (including her doctor, Rachelle Gandica, MD,) in the audience cheering her on for one of the shows, but she also received a special note from an original Sister Act cast member, the actress Kathy Najimy, who, like Rachel, has type 1 diabetes (T1D) and is a patient at the Berrie Center.
What follows is an edited interview the Berrie Center conducted with Rachel, who has had diabetes since she was 7.
When did you first become interested in acting?
My love for the performing arts began at a very young age and my parents definitely helped foster my passion for it. I started playing piano and dancing (and went on to do tap, jazz, ballet, hip hop) at the age of 3 and have been involved in the school chorus since 3rd grade.
Throughout my childhood, my parents and I went to see many Broadway productions- everything from Annie to Wicked, to my most recent favorite, Hamilton. Every show, I fell in love with the stories, characters, songs, and musical numbers brought to life on the stage. I was amazed by the musicality of every line and action, and always pictured myself up on the stage as well. In the 5th grade, I participated in my first school musical, The Music Man, and after that, I was hooked!
How is it managing your T1D while on stage? Do you take any precautions?
Managing diabetes while on stage is definitely a challenge, although, after many experiments of trial-and-error throughout all of our show's practices, I finally figured out what works best to keep my numbers in check. Before a performance, I make sure to eat a higher, long-lasting carb meal as I know that performing drops my numbers. At least 20 minutes before I go on stage, I make sure to check my blood sugar to ensure I am at an appropriate number to start. In addition, during Sister Act, I would set lots of temporary basals on my pump to counteract the effects of the adrenaline and physical activity and always checked my numbers during scenes where I was not onstage.
Any tips for aspiring thespians with T1D out there?
My tip is simple: YOU CAN DO IT! Don't be intimidated because you don't know what performing will do to your numbers. Diabetes already restricts us in too many ways to let it restrict us from doing what we love and taking chances in life. A really good way to figure out HOW to manage your T1D during shows is to start figuring out what works for you during all of your rehearsals! They're a good example of what will happen in terms of activity and adrenaline during the show and thus, I always figure out times when I can check and the best meals to have before the week of the show arrives. Also, keep a pack of food, water, and your meter backstage or in your dressing room—somewhere very accessible when you're on the run to your next entrance!
What did you enjoy most about being in Sister Act?
I loved basically every minute of my experience in Sister Act, but my favorite part was the special family I formed with the cast, crew, pit, directors, and everyone involved in the production. I've taken part in a number of shows, but this year, in particular, we formed such an incredibly special and close bond. Although we called each other "sisters" in the show, these people became my "sisters" and "brothers" in real life as well. I have never been surrounded by so much love and support. Everyone is Sister Act truly loves what they do and the people they do it with.
Were you surprised to get a message from Kathy Najimy? What did she tell you?
I was extremely surprised to receive a message from Kathy Najimy! I received the special video a few days before one of our shows and I freaked out with excitement! It was so humbling and inspirational to hear from the original Mary Patrick, especially since she has diabetes just like me. She told me to sing my heart out, and I followed her advice.
I know you have a lot of interests! Do you hope to keep acting?
I absolutely plan to keep on acting. Next year will be my last musical at my high school, but I know that singing, dancing, and the performing arts will always remain an integral part of my life.
Anything else you'd like to tell us about how your experience in the show?
My experience with Sister Act was one that I will truly never forget. Many people think that it was challenging to take on the lead role of Deloris, but in some ways, the larger challenge was being able to play Deloris as a person with T1D. After the long, arduous practices and many late nights in the theater, I realized that diabetes cannot and will not hold me back in life. I can honestly say that being a part of Sister Act this year was one of the best experiences of my life. While I was up on stage, the world just melted away and all that was left was a wonderful group of people bringing a fantastic show to life as well as a bright, shining passion for performing that lights up my life and will continue to do so.