EXCLUSIVE: TLC’s T-Boz on How Her Kids Fueled ‘Miracle’ Recovery From Coma, Brain Tumor & Sickle Cell Disease
By Leena Tailor
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TLC singer Tionne “T Boz” Watkins is opening up about her grueling health battles, including an ongoing fight against sickle cell disease, falling into a coma following the birth of her daughter and her “miracle” recovery from a terrifying brain tumor.
The 47-year-old singer sat down with ET’s Kevin Frazier to promote her new book, A Sick Life: TLC 'n Me: Stories from On and Off the Stage, in which she shares harrowing details about her struggles and how being a mom motivated her to fight through.
During one of her many low points, Watkins recalled crying in disbelief after learning she had a brain tumor in 2006.
“That was the hardest four days ever because the first day, I cried in disbelief and went through, ‘Why is this happening? I’ve been through enough,’” she told ET. “And then the third day kicked in and I was like, ‘Bump that, I’m gonna fight whatever this is. I don’t have time to die. I have to be here to raise my daughter.’ I sat there for hours every day and thought to myself, ‘No matter how I come back, I have to fight this.’”
While doctors were wary of performing brain surgery due to the singer's lifelong battling sickle cell disease, Watkins found a surgeon to remove the tumor. However, her recovery from the operation took more than three years and she feels blessed every time she’s able to rock the stage with TLC these days.
“I couldn’t close my eyes, I couldn’t form words, I lost my speech, my sight, my hearing,” she recalled. “There was so much that came with healing and so many different doctors. It seemed like one thing after the other and I was like, ‘When is this going to end?’ Finally the three-and-a-half years came [and] my smile is crooked -- and I lost three percent hearing and a little bit of sight. People are like, ‘Why don’t you smile?’ Because it’s something I’m still working through. I don’t like my crooked smile. I’m working through it mentally, physically and emotionally.”
“I’m dancing, turning and spinning -- things I thought I would never be able to do again [and] that they said I may never do again,” she added. “It’s a blessing and a miracle, but I worked hard to be where I’m at today.”
The tumor wasn’t Watkins' first life-or-death scare.
At the age of seven, she was told by a doctor that she would never have kids or live beyond 30, then at 28 she was finally diagnosed with sickle cell disease, a debilitating illness where blood flow gets blocked, preventing oxygen flow and subsequently causing damage to organs and severe pain.
Watkins’ battle with the condition culminated in the singer nearly losing her life following the 2000 birth of her daughter, Chase, when she fell into a coma after breastfeeding.
“When you have sickle cell, you have 10 times the fluid that a normal person has to intake, so when I breast-fed, I would vomit every time she latched on,” she explained. “I was losing all my bodily fluids and I dried out and went into a coma. I remember waking up and my mom telling the nurse to lay the baby on my heart and whispering, ‘Tionne, you have someone to live for,’ and that is what pushed me through that coma. I remember getting up singing the *NSYNC song ‘It’s Gonna Be Me’ like nothing ever happened.”
Leaving the hospital, Watkins said she had a newfound appreciation for little things like “seeing trees and birds and sky,” but most of all, was thankful to be there for her daughter.
She has since adopted a young son, Chance, and got candid about how “off the chain” the little boy is.
“Oh my god, boys are way different from girls,” she shared. “At this age, I could take my daughter to the movies and she would sit there all dainty and prissy and watch the movie. Him? None of that. He is off the chain, but the happiest baby. His energy is awesome -- it keeps you younger.”
Despite her health battles, Watkins hopes to live long enough to “be a grandmother,” and keep performing. On Wednesday, she will hit the stage at Avalon in Los Angeles, California, for T-Boz Unplugged, an annual benefit show which she holds to fundraise for children with sickle cell disease.
Live performances remain one of her greatest passions, but Watkins still grapples with the absence of late TLC band mate Lisa "Left Eye" Lopes, who died in a car accident in 2002. Asked what she misses the most about Lopes, Watkins said “just her.”
“Her spirit … just her,” she said. “The thing that I admired about her the most is that she never cared what anyone thought! She just lived her life for her -- and that's such a great quality to have.”
“She lives throughout our music and always will,” Watkins added. “We did this together, that's why we will never replace her. It's about what we built together -- we have history together, a catalog. She doesn't have to physically be here. People make me mad when they go, ‘Oh it's just TC.’ No, it's TLC. When you work for a name -- especially when you pay somebody a million dollars a letter -- that's your name. We worked for that name and we're going to keep that name.”