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Trussville local talks Lyme disease, type 1 diabetes, addiction as platforms for state beauty pageant

By Nathan Prewett

For the Tribune

TRUSSVILLE — Representing Trussville in the upcoming Mrs. Alabama America Pageant is Jennifer Harper Bowen, a local mother and wife whose ordeals with type 1 diabetes, Lyme disease and losing loved ones to addiction are what drives her to use the pageant as a platform.

Jennifer Harper Bowen. Photo by Chuck St. John from Red Models.

“I would say that I have three top platforms – Oh my gosh, I have about 20,” she said. “But my top three would be type 1 diabetes, Lyme disease and addiction.”

Part of the way that she raises awareness of these issues in her platform is through social media, her Facebook pages namely.

“I have a pretty big social media following,” she said. “So, I try to use that the best I can. I use that as my outreach for educating people.”

Bowen said that even in the medical field, type 1 diabetes and Lyme disease can still be misunderstood and in some cases are outright denied.

“There’s so much misinformation surrounding both of those,” she said. “Even with people in the medical field, so I try to educate as much as I can because I feel like if I could save one person’s life or educate one parent if their child gets it, then I feel like God’s mission for me in regard to that would be accomplished.”

She had gestational diabetes while pregnant with her son, though she had been ill for some time before. After she gave birth, doctors told her that she no longer had to take medication.

But when her son was four, she began yearly physicals which revealed that her blood sugar was two points too high. This would only occur after having meals, which she believes caused them to miss what was truly causing her health issues.

During this time, she also became infertile.

“Within the year, I fought for my own diagnosis,” she said. “We had struggled through infertility and done fertility treatments for years and I could never get pregnant. I finally went to my endocrinologist there in Virginia and said, ‘You’re wrong. I’m not type 2 diabetic. I need you to do tests and I’m not leaving without insulin because you’re going to kill me.’”

Bowen started on insulin shots that day and, soon afterwards, became pregnant with her second child. However, further testing revealed that Bowen’s pancreas was not making insulin like it should be.

“You have to have insulin as much as you have to have oxygen,” she said.

This condition began to threaten her with DKA or Diabetic Ketoacidosis, which can cause someone to go into a coma and die.

“The misinformation surrounding this is that only children get this,” she said. “99 percent of the time they diagnose an adult as type 2 and sometimes they’re wrong because juvenile diabetes can come on at any age, it’s just more common in children. And when you’re an adult, it comes on a lot slower.”

In children, it can appear as the flu. Bowen believes that even if it appears as such, children should still get their blood sugar checked. If a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes is missed and it’s not treated, the consequences can become severe.

“If I stop taking my insulin for even an hour I would start going into a diabetic coma,” she said. “I’ve had times when my insulin pump stopped working and I almost went into a coma. It’s very serious.”

As it stands, type 1 diabetes cannot be cured. It can be managed through insulin, diet, and exercise but unlike type 2 diabetes there is no cure for anybody who has it.

“If the whole juvenile diabetes community could get together and have one campaign I’m sure it would be to educate people on this diabetes is not going away,” she said. “This diabetes cannot be cured. The only thing we have for treatment is insulin and even that is not a cure.”

Bowen said that she had spent much of her childhood being sick. She believes that she may have gotten Lyme disease from a tick bite when she was five years old. As a result of her coming down ill when she was a child and a teenager, she missed 42 days of school in her junior year of high school.

“I was always sick, and they just never knew what was wrong with me,” she said. The thing about Lyme disease is it’s a crazy disease. It can attack at any time, it can attack anywhere, it can do anything to your body.”

Lyme disease can lie dormant in the body for long periods of time. And when it appears out of the blue, it can cause multiple symptoms such as fevers, palsy, heart palpitations and other effects.

Last year in September, Bowen noticed that her heart and pulse rates were going faster than usual. This progressed to neurological problems and headaches. Migraines became an issue that would plague her for several months. An MRI scan later revealed that there was a mass on her pineal gland, causing the headaches.

“Now that I know that I have Lyme and I’ve studied to the ends of the earth, Lyme can cause any of the autoimmune diseases I have and it can cause cysts or masses anywhere on your body or in your brain,” she said.

Though the mass fortunately did not grow bigger, fevers were still bothering her. It became severe to the point where it was hard for her to formulate sentences. Her memory began to be affected and her body became numb.

“It was the scariest time of my life,” she said. “I’ve been sick a lot in my life, but to be mentally sick and not know the cause is horrifying. And at the same time, I had these fevers that wouldn’t go away and very high white blood count. I did 18 rounds of antibiotics during this time.”

She was diagnosed with Lyme disease in 2017. But it was some time before she received the diagnosis as she was originally thought to have non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, but extensive blood-testing showed that wasn’t the case.

“I was in shock,” she said. “My previous test was negative. There’s basically no definitive test for Lyme disease and even if you get a negative you can still have it. What was even more shocking to me is that insurance doesn’t even pay for Lyme disease”

She said that health insurance companies don’t recognize Lyme disease, though they’ll pay for two weeks of antibiotics. Bowen would have to search high and low to find treatment.

“Just to set foot in Lyme disease – it’s like a secret underworld,” she said. “Just to find a Lyme disease doctors I had to join secret groups [on Facebook] and get the doctor’s approval to make an appointment.”

Bowen said that she had to go quite some distance to find a doctor that could treat her disease.

“Every doctor I was referred to here in Alabama, their nurses said, ‘Oh we don’t do Lyme disease,” she said. “So where am I supposed to go to?”

She had to go outside the state to see a doctor that was “Lyme-literate.” Costs for testing and treatment took its toll.

“I just remember getting on my knees beside my bed and just crying out to God, ‘You have to take this from me, I can’t do this anymore,” she said. “And within the next week or so my fever stopped, and I was able to run outside and play with my kids. That was huge to me, just to go outside with my kids.”

She said that she was in remission with Lyme, though it can strike at any time. But for now, she counts her recovery as a “huge blessing”.

But the disease isn’t always taken seriously, she said. When her son was diagnosed at Children’s Hospital with the same thing, though in an early stage, she took him to a pediatrician who told her that Lyme disease doesn’t exist in Alabama.

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that insects know state lines,” she said. “They don’t recognize it in the South but it’s rampant and it’s everywhere.”

“Even through my darkest of days and all of the suffering I went through, I feel like it changed me as a person and it gave me a new outlook on life,” she said. “Any day that I wake up and I can drive or walk or the most simple things that people take for granted and don’t even know any different, I know different now and I see the world completely different.

And it’s very humbling. It’s given me a huge outreach and I’ve always had a big heart and an even bigger heart to outreach to people who are hurting, because it can feel like you’re so alone when you’re going through the hardest trials in life.

She said that her faith and her family, especially her children, have kept her going through the years of going through these illnesses. For anyone who may be going through these are similar illnesses she advises thorough research, outreach and an attitude of never giving up.

“Be your own advocate,” she said.

The third part of Bowen’s platform is addiction. She recounted the tragic story of two of her sisters passing away after struggling with addiction.

“It’s just been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life,” she said. “They left behind six kids total. We did everything we could to save them, but ultimately we couldn’t.”

Her first sister passed some time after getting clean under mysterious circumstances. Her other sister, devastated, began drinking, which caused problems for her health even after detoxing. This eventually led to her death of cardiac arrest in 2015.

Similar to her advice on living with a disease, Bowen stressed that anyone going through an addiction can be gone suddenly, so make the best of your time helping them.

“Don’t give up,” she said. “Don’t give up. I can say that honestly at the end of the day, we did everything within our power to save them. I can’t imagine saying ‘I’m done with you. You’re never not going to be an addict,’ and something happens.

None of us are safe from this,” she said. “So I would say don’t give up on this, even in their darkest of times, don’t say ‘I can’t handle you anymore,” because you never know when they could be gone.”

Mrs. Alabama America is slated to take place in June this year. State competitions will be followed by a national Mrs. America pageant in Las Vegas in August. She has a GoFundMe page for those interested in helping pay for expenses.

Bowen is raising funds as Mrs. Trussville Alabama America for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation through the sale of Krispy Kreme Donuts. Her goal is $1,500 and has raised $700 so far.

To see more on Bowen’s story and her efforts to educate people on her diseases, visit her Facebook page, Mrs. Trussville Alabama America.

She also runs a page called Kisses and Glam on Facebook.

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