From CNN and NPR to NBC and the U.S. Senate, Mona Hanna-Attisha MD MPH has done her best to accommodate many of the media and government requests about lead-contaminated drinking water in Flint and its effects on children.
“It’s my job,” said Hanna, who released research results during a Sept. 24, 2015, press conference at Hurley Medical Center that showed significantly increased levels of toxic lead in the blood of Flint children after the change in Flint’s drinking water source compared to before the switch, helping to launch a maelstrom of scientific, political, media, celebrity, and community responses.
An educator at heart, Hanna is prepared to put into action everything she has learned as a pediatrician, public health professional, educator and scholar to improve the situation in Flint.
That includes not only Hanna and colleagues’ paper about the blood-lead study results in Flint (published in February 2016 by the American Journal of Public Health) and the new Hurley-Michigan State University Pediatric Public Health Initiative (headed up by Hanna to assess, monitor and mitigate the crisis at the community level) but also a recent interview published online Feb. 17 in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), as well as a Feb. 22 announcement that she will be speaking at the national Preventive Medicine Annual Meeting in Washington DC on Feb. 26. The title of her presentation Feb. 26: The Flint Water Crisis: Lessons in Detection, Treatment and Prevention.
In most water-related activities, Hanna has a resident physician or medical student by her side. Hurley is a teaching hospital for the Flint Campus of Michigan State University College of Human Medicine.
The water issues provide a unique learning experience about health disparities and the pediatrician’s role in population health, Hanna said.
Second-year Hurley pediatric resident physician Allison Schnepp MD would agree.
“I have learned so much,” said Schnepp, a Genesee County native who helped to conduct the blood-lead research study and coauthored the paper. “Dr. Hanna has been a great mentor. … I learned that we can truly make a difference – and that is pretty inspiring.”
Likewise, fourth-year MSU-CHM-Flint medical student Joseph Jacobson also has found his pediatric rotation with Dr. Hanna instructive. He is part of a specialized MSU CHM program, Leadership in Medicine for the Underserved (LMU), which requires a two-month capstone rotation in an underserved area.
“While many of my classmates went abroad, I chose to stay locally to work with Dr. Hanna here in Flint,” said Jacobson, who grew up in Shawano, Wisc., and now is helping with some of the lead-related research in Flint.
The goal of his LMU rotation is to gain experience working in the midst of a public health crisis, learning various aspects of healthcare, including direct patient care, public policy, and research. It has been valuable, he said.
“I have been following Dr. Hanna to various meetings and talks throughout the city and state, getting a first-hand look at the inner workings of how we make change in public policy and how we educate an entire population on an incident like this,” said Jacobson. “I am three weeks into this rotation now and am excited for what the next five weeks have in store.”
Jacobson has applied for residency positions in orthopaedic surgery and won’t know if he has matched with a program for another month. But his time at Hurley will only help in his ultimate goal of working in orthopaedics. Lead, afterall, affects bones, too. And since he comes from a rural town in northern Wisconsin, he understands the importance of physicians in the community.
“I hope in the future to be able to work with underserved patients, whether it be rural or urban, and to train future physicians on the importance of caring for those who are under-represented,” he said.
Those are just the types of lessons Hanna hopes to impart to the learners at Hurley right now.
While many would find it difficult to keep up Hanna’s sustained, brisk pace of performing her usual tasks as director of Hurley’s Pediatric Residency Training Program plus the daily requests for phone, radio, TV and in-person interviews and presentations – not to mention requests for research data, Hanna said the advocacy – and the research and the mentoring of future physicians - are part of the solution.
“There is no safe level of lead in blood,” Hanna has said repeatedly, explaining that it’s the pediatrician’s job to help improve the lives of children - and those exposed to lead in Flint will need help for decades. But if children get the help they need now, maybe their outcomes will be better than expected - so there’s no time to waste.
“Lead (exposure) has … life-damning consequences,” Hanna told JAMA, citing the permanent and epigenetic changes that could affect children and their offspring, such as decreases in IQ, increases in conduct and impulse disorders, and increases in developmental problems.
“We can sit back, and in 10, 15 years … see a community suffering from the cognitive, the behavioral ramifications of this population-wide (lead) exposure. … Or we could do something,” said Hanna during the Jan. 11, 2016, announcement of the MSU-Hurley Pediatric Public Health Initiative.
For Hanna, there will be no sitting back. It is time to act. And she likely will have many people helping at her side.
Above photo: Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha leads a Feb. 1, 2016, tour of Hurley Medical Center with MSU-CHM medical student Joseph Jacobson and U.S. Senator Gary Peters at her side. Hurley file photo by Doug Pike, 2016.