Addressing health disparities through community outreach

BY Leah Mishkin, Correspondent |

Deborah Burt is a volunteer at an United Way event that addresses health disparities through community engagement, but she also has firsthand experience on that topic.

“I was 298 pounds, diabetic,” Burt said. “I went into the hospital because my sugar was 1,095.”

She says doctors told her she should have been in a diabetic coma or had a stroke.

“Growing up, you ate what your parents cooked for you. Nobody really measured out, you know, you ate whatever you wanted. And when I got older, I ate what I wanted,” said Burt.

“Seven out of the 10 most impactful diseases that are downturn to wellness in our communities are impacted and preventable by what we eat,” said Dr. Mark Wade, CEO of the Newark Department of Health and Community Wellness. “We have to make decisions we already know. I can’t eat cake and ice cream and pie every night because I like it if I’ve been diagnosed with diabetes. I can’t not exercise because I’m tired when I get home.”

He says these are decisions we can make that aren’t impacted by economics, but economics do play a factor in why New Jersey leads the country in many of the areas of health disparities.

“When we look at diseases like asthma, which is the number one cause and cost of hospitalization for children, that hasn’t gotten better, it’s gotten worse. Heart disease, diabetes, these are trends that are overwhelming the ethnic minority inner city community and we haven’t moved the needle,” said Wade.

State health data shows Hispanics are twice as likely as whites to be hospitalized for asthma, and African-Americans are four times more likely. It’s the same for infant mortality, even though the state has made strides. The data shows African-American babies die at more than three times the rate of white newborns. There are also major disparities when it comes to obesity.

“Income, health, geography, race — all of those things play into effect,” said Anthony Nunez, community school director for Newark Public Schools.

Nunes is from Newark and his father is diabetic, and he says that’s what motivates him to be part of the change.

“He was diagnosed at 21, but he didn’t do anything. He literally didn’t do anything because of all those factors that determine his future. He was uneducated, he’d eat whatever he wanted to eat, he was poor,” said Nunez.

Nunez has since helped his father and he’s also the person who trained Burt to become a peer leader. It’s done through United Way’s Chronic Disease Self-Management Program. She says by understanding what she could do to better her situation — diet, exercise and portion control — she was able to get her health back together.

“I was taking 30 units three times a day, now I take 30 units once a day. And I’m down to one pill instead of three pills,” said Burt.

She’s 59 years old, a mother of two and can now say her diabetes is under control.