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5 Black People Who’ve Changed the Diabetes World

Published: 2/20/24 7:56 pm
By Anna Brooks

In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting influential advocates and ambassadors who’ve fought to improve equity and quality of care for underserved people in the diabetes community. 

Diabetes is a challenging condition for anyone to manage. It’s even more challenging without adequate access to education, medications, and care.
This has long been the case for many people with diabetes in the Black community. Not only is the prevalence of diabetes significantly higher among non-Hispanic Black adults compared to non-Hispanic white adults (12% versus 7%, respectively), but Black people are also at higher risk for diabetes-related hospitalizations and complications like kidney disease and vision loss.
Along with these disproportionate numbers, studies have found that there are also differences in the quality of care for Black people compared to white people due to barriers around health insurance, diabetes education, access to care, systemic racism, and more.

While such statistics are disheartening, there are many in the diabetes community working to spread awareness and break down these barriers to improve the lives of Black people with diabetes. Here we highlight the stories and contributions of five Black people making a difference in the diabetes world.

1. Ella Fitzgerald

One of the most famous jazz singers to grace the stage, Ella Fitzgerald is known as the “First Lady of Song” for a reason. She illuminated audiences with her sultry voice, perfect pitch, and powerful stage presence. Before passing away at age 79, Fitzgerald had racked up 13 Grammys and recorded over 250 albums.

Fitzgerald also lived with diabetes, a condition that led to severe complications for the singer. Fitzgerald's eyesight was waning, and in 1993, she had to have both legs amputated below the knee. That same year, she created The Ella Fitzgerald Charitable Foundation, which aims to improve the lives of disadvantaged and at-risk communities. 

Along with directing funds towards education (especially for students of music), food, and shelter, the foundation also supports medical care and research with a specific focus on diabetes, eye health, and heart disease.  

2. Kendall Simmons

A two-time Super Bowl champ, Kendall Simmons had a seven-year run playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2003, a year after he first started playing pro ball for the Steelers, Simmons was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

Living in Alabama at the time, he assumed the symptoms he was experiencing – rapid weight loss, fatigue, and extreme thirst – were due to the heat and intensive football training. He was eventually hospitalized and went temporarily blind for a week. Not letting his diagnosis slow him down, Simmons continued with his professional football career, noting in an interview that he required 8-10 insulin shots a game. 

His career came to a close in 2011 due to an injury, but Simmons has always remained an open advocate for diabetes. Every year he hosts Swing For Diabetes, a golf tournament that raises funds for the Diabetes and Nutrition Center of East Alabama Health. Roughly 14% of people in Alabama live with diabetes, with cost being a big barrier to proper care. 

In his retirement, Simmons continues to share his experiences as a pro athlete with diabetes as a Dexcom Warrior and diabetes patient ambassador for Novo Nordisk.

3. Patti LaBelle

If you’ve heard the 1970s hit “Lady Marmalade,” you’ve heard of Patti LaBelle. Another unforgettable female vocalist, LaBelle is considered one of the original queens of R&B.

LaBelle lives with type 2 diabetes, a condition she was diagnosed with after collapsing on stage while performing in New York City in 1995. Diabetes also runs in LaBelle’s family and has led to major complications: both her aunt and uncle lost their vision, and her mother had to have both her legs amputated before she died.

LaBelle has been open about her journey with diabetes, sharing how lifestyle changes like diet and exercise have helped improve her glucose levels. After her diagnosis, she wrote a cookbook “Patti Labelle's Lite Cuisine” focused on healthier eating

She also uses a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), a device that she emphasized has been revolutionary for managing her diabetes. Due to disparities in care, research finds CGM use to be much lower in marginalized communities; only about 28% of Black people use CGMs compared to 71% of white adults with diabetes.

“Why are so many of us out here fighting diabetes with the same old tools that have been around since my aunt, uncle, and mother were diagnosed? If today’s health care system provided more coverage for (and access to) these technologies, millions of lives could be saved,” LaBelle wrote in an opinion piece.

LaBelle is a strong advocate – and “divabetic,” as she refers to herself – for the Black community and diabetes community.

4. Anthony Anderson

You probably recognize Anthony Anderson’s face (or his boisterous laugh) from movies and TV shows like “Barbershop,” “Transformers,” and “Law & Order.” He was also the host of the 2024 Emmys (he himself has won six Emmys for his role in the hit sitcom “Black-ish”).

Anderson also has type 2 diabetes, which he’s lived with for almost 25 years. Now a diabetes advocate, Anderson is the face of Novo Nordisk’s Get Real About Diabetes campaign, which aims to educate and encourage open conversations about type 2 diabetes and how to manage the condition.

For Anderson, what made him “get real” about his diabetes was after his father passed away from diabetes-related complications.

“That was really tough, especially knowing that if my dad had taken better care of himself, he might still be here. That was a real wake-up call for me. I didn’t want to just be a memory for my family, I wanted to be there. So, I vowed right then and there that I would get serious about managing my diabetes,” Anderson said in an interview.  

Implementing lifestyle changes like diet and exercise, Anderson underwent dramatic weight loss and said it’s made a big impact on managing his blood sugars. Along with medication, some of the lifestyle changes he’s incorporated into his daily routine include morning walks, yoga, and maintaining a healthy diet.

5. Gary Forbes

Another sports star, Gary Forbes is one of only a few known NBA players to have diabetes. Playing professional ball was Forbes’ childhood dream, and as a top-tier athlete in high school and college, he was well on his way. 

Things came to a halt when Forbes started experiencing sudden weight loss and other symptoms like extreme thirst and frequently needing to use the bathroom. During his freshman year in college, he was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. 

But that didn’t slow him down. After learning about type 1 diabetes (a condition that also runs in his family) and getting on long-acting insulin, Forbes eventually went on to play in the NBA for the Houston Rockets, Denver Nuggets, and Brooklyn Nets. 

He spoke to diaTribe about the challenges of living with diabetes as a professional athlete – including one harrowing experience falling into a diabetic coma – and how having a positive mindset helped get him through.

“I always looked at diabetes as my superpower because I can do everything that these other players are doing and I have diabetes,” he said.

Now retired, Forbes is hoping to educate and empower other people with chronic conditions like diabetes with a new superhero comic book series called “The Sole Survivors.”

The bottom line

While this is only a short list of many in the Black community who’ve lived with and advocated for better care for people with diabetes, it’s a reminder that we all need to step up and do our part to reduce (and hopefully one day eliminate) racial disparities in healthcare. 

Of course, there are some factors – like genetics – that can’t be controlled. Still, there is a lot that governments, medical institutions, and policymakers can do to improve diabetes education and quality of care for people, like those with diabetes in the Black community, who face a higher disease burden. 

For those looking to learn more about diabetes, empower themselves as patients, or promote health equity, here is a list of helpful resources: 

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About the authors

Anna Brooks is a Managing Editor at diaTribe. She has a master’s degree in journalism with a specialization in health and science. Originally from Calgary, Anna has worked as a... Read the full bio »