Donna Burrell

Donna Burrell, Diabetes PATH Leader

About 17 years ago, long-time Flint resident Donna Burrell went to the doctor’s office for her annual physical exam. Unexpectedly, Donna found out that her blood glucose level indicated she had prediabetes. Her doctor instructed her to go on a limited-calorie diet and to begin exercising regularly. Over time, Donna developed type 2 diabetes which has required many lifestyle changes.

Diabetes is a serious disease that affects an estimated one million Michigan adults. It is often called a “silent disease” because it can cause serious complications even before you have symptoms. If not managed properly, diabetes can lead to serious health problems such as kidney disease, heart disease, stroke, and more.

Donna explains that her diagnosis was surprising because she had not experienced symptoms before. However, once she found out she has type 2 diabetes, she began exercising and eating healthy to prevent the many complications that can occur when diabetes is not managed.

To live well, you need to be physically active at least 30 to 60 minutes on most days of the week. Donna’s activity of choice has always been walking.

“I began exercising and began a walking program,” explains Donna, who is now 72 years old. “My husband and I started walking in the mornings in our neighborhood. At one point, we would walk anywhere from 4 to 7 miles.”

In addition to exercising, making healthy food choices can help individuals with diabetes—as well as those who are at risk—lose weight and maintain a healthy weight. Healthy eating is a large component of managing diabetes successfully, and as Donna explains, it’s not as easy as one may think, but it is doable.

“In addition to walking regularly, I began watching what I was eating by counting carbohydrates and monitoring sugar intake,” says Donna. “I have also tried to practice good habits by eating lots of fruits and vegetables.”

Making healthy food choices and exercising regularly can be challenging – especially if you’re a newly diagnosed patient and you haven’t made these changes before. Donna says the best way she has learned to monitor her many responsibilities in managing her health is by keeping a schedule and learning what’s important for her as an individual.

“Keeping a schedule is important,” explains Donna. “Telling yourself that you have a serious health issue, just like any other chronic disease, is something that those of us with diabetes have to do. Although I have learned to eat healthy and monitor my weight, sticking with a plan has helped me.”

Donna adds that another important component in managing diabetes is self management and learning to be your own advocate. She says that you must know yourself to understand what you need.

“When I was first diagnosed with diabetes, I asked my doctor to send me to nutrition class. He didn’t volunteer—I asked him,” says Donna. “You must be aware of what you can do to manage your own health and seek help if you have an issue.”

Through Donna’s passion and success in managing her diabetes, she has become a health advocate at her church and has gotten involved with health programs in the Flint community.

Donna is a member of Holy Ghost Church Ministries, where she organizes an annual nutrition seminar and has even gotten her church to provide healthy alternatives at all of their get-togethers. Additionally, she encourages members of the church who also have diabetes to manage their health.

“At our church, there are about 5 of us who have diabetes,” says Donna. “I ask them ‘have you been to nutrition class,’ and ‘do you know how to count your carbs?’ I also talk about exercise a lot and try to get others involved in walking.”

For about 2 years, Donna has also been a Diabetes PATH leader. Diabetes PATH (Personal Action Toward Health) is a program offered by the National Kidney Foundation of Michigan (NKFM) that teaches people with diabetes how to manage their condition.

Donna explains that being involved with Diabetes PATH has been a “rewarding experience.” She says that many of the daily lifestyle choices she has made over the last 17 years, such as making healthy food choices, exercising, setting goals, and advocating for yourself, are taught in the workshop.

“You make plans with people and the friendships they build provide a support system. They learn about medications, how to advocate for themselves, and how to communicate with their health care provider,” says Donna. “As Diabetes PATH leaders, we provide the toolbox and show you what you can do with it for yourself. The participants really appreciate what they learn about keeping fit, healthy eating, and portion sizes, too.”

Through her example, Donna hopes to encourage other individuals with diabetes to take these steps and manage their health.

Managing diabetes can be hard, but it’s worth it. By learning about diabetes, knowing your numbers, getting routine care, and making healthy lifestyle choices, you can lower your risk of possible complications. For information and helpful resources about managing diabetes, check out the National Diabetes Education Program (NDEP) at