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Phillip Phillips Reveals Details of Year-Long Kidney Crisis

Phillip Phillips

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updated 06/27/2012 AT 7:00 AM ET

originally published 07/01/2012 AT 6:15 PM ET

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The last year has been the most challenging – and rewarding – of Phillip Phillips’s life.

His joyful journey on Season 11 of American Idol – which he won in an emotional finale on May 23 – is something “I never thought would happen,” Phillips, 21, tells PEOPLE.

It almost didn’t: At the same time the gravel-voiced Georgia guitar player was following his music dreams on Idol, he was privately coping with a kidney disorder that often left him in excruciating pain – and sometimes wondering if he could continue with the show.

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