Champion For Children

Dr. Mona gained fame as a ‘water warrior,’ but her long-term crusade is fixing all of Flint’s social ills


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In the fall of 2015, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha analyzed the blood samples of Flint children and found dangerous exposure to lead from the city's water supply.

Photographs by Joe Vaughn

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha isn’t getting as many phone calls these days. There was a time, not long ago, when her phone was ringing constantly and her email inbox was flooded. This was shortly after she’d used her position as a pediatrician with Flint’s Hurley Medical Center to analyze the blood samples of children and found the alarming results: Children throughout the city had been exposed to lead, a dangerous neurotoxin, due to a change in the city’s water supply. 

That was in the fall of 2015, and in the following months, she went from being known locally as Dr. Hanna-Attisha to being known globally as Dr. Mona. 

The national media descended, and she took almost every call.

She’s still trying to flip that story, but the phone isn’t ringing like it used to.

That’s a problem, because Flint can’t afford for people to have short attention spans. 

It has been about a year since she went public with her results, and already the attention is waning. And that’s not nearly long enough. “For decades, we’re going to have to think about tomorrow,” she says. 

 

More Than a Water Issue

Talking to Hanna-Attisha, it’s sometimes easy to forget she’s a doctor. The conversation may start about the adverse effect that lead can have on children’s health, but within moments phrases like “economic disinvestment” begin to take over.

“It’s been said that pediatricians are the ultimate witness to failed social policy,” she says. “It is in my clinic, every day, that I see the consequences of all these disparities — and not just the water crisis. I mean, the extreme poverty. 

“Flint has over a 40 percent poverty rate, and it’s so much greater for our children,” she adds. “Lack of transportation, unemployment, lack of living wages. … Pediatricians are the witnesses to this.” 

Hanna-Attisha is sitting at a table in the Flint Crepe Company, one of the city’s newer downtown restaurants. It’s just a short walk from her office at the Hurley Children’s Center, located at the Flint Farmers’ Market — a strategic location, she says, because it’s right next to the bus station. And it’s a good place to educate parents about nutrition in a city with a severe shortage of full-service grocery stores.

“You can Band-Aid problems, or you can get to the source of those problems,” Hanna-Attisha says.

Which is why she talks about things like unemployment and economic disinvestment. Her job is to make Flint kids healthy, and that means doing a lot more than checkups. It means understanding that health has a lot more to do with ZIP codes than it does on how often a kid goes to the doctor. There is no one issue — not even water.

“This is a crisis that happened on top of a crisis. There was already a crisis here,” Hanna-Attisha says. “In any way that you can think about. Unemployment and disinvestment and disparities and violence. If you look at any statistics or data, Flint is at the bottom, which obviously led to the water crisis. 

“But it didn’t start with the water crisis. It was pre-existing.”

The doctor is not the only one who’s frustrated that more people aren’t paying attention — or money — to the situation. U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint, recently spoke on the House floor, shaming Congress for taking a break when Flint needed relief. 

He wrote legislation, the Families of Flint Act, that he’s been trying to push through Congress. “While new water infrastructure is vital for Flint’s recovery, what’s needed ... goes beyond the replacement of the water pipes,” he said in an email. “When the pipes are fixed, and the water is safe to drink, we will still have long-term costs associated with this crisis that will exist well into the future. What’s needed is a comprehensive set of solutions that invests in educational, nutritional, and developmental support to help overcome lead exposure. 

“It is so tough to get Congress to take action because many in Congress are not thinking long term and they certainly are not thinking about places like Flint, Michigan.”

The state and federal government have given aid to Flint, but the help comes with a shelf life. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, for example, provided $3.6 million earlier this year to expand Head Start services for children, but the funding is only for one year, for 51 additional children. The state of Michigan expanded Medicaid to include more Flint residents, and while it’s expected to be renewed, the Medicaid expansion is set to expire after five years.

“All of these things have been like teasers, they don’t recognize the long-term commitment that we need, the decades-long commitment that we need,” Hanna-Attisha says.  

 

Becoming Dr. Mona

It was over dinner that Hanna-Attisha first got the idea to look into Flint’s blood lead levels. Even before a friend suggested that she look into it, it was obvious there had been problems with the water. Since Flint switched its source of drinking water from Detroit to the Flint River as a cost-saving measure while a pipeline to Lake Huron was being built, people had been complaining of rashes and of smelly, discolored water. There were boil advisories. 

But all along, the state said, the water was safe. 

They even said so after Hanna-Attisha went public with her research, which she says she checked “a bazillion times.” 

Officials later apologized, and she went from local doctor to international hero. She has appeared on countless news outlets and in April was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world. 

For a time you couldn’t look anywhere without seeing her. In Flint, her face can still be seen on the side of public buses, but outside the city attention is shifting. 

And maybe that shouldn’t be too surprising. Flint had its problems before, and the world, for the most part turned a blind eye. That was just Flint. The place with problems. 

Now, maybe, so far as the rest of the world is concerned, it’s just that place with bad water. 

That’s why Hanna-Attisha knows that to be a doctor to Flint kids, she has to be more than a doctor. It’s why she’s Dr. Mona. 

 

Hanna-Attisha, along with local politicians and Flint-area nonprofits, are pushing for educational, nutritional, and developmental support to help overcome lead exposure.

 

A $50 Million Issue

Hanna-Attisha shares Rep. Kildee’s frustrations, but she isn’t sitting around waiting for Congress to act. That, she says, was never part of the plan. 

“We’re not relying on government for all of these resources, because we know that’s not going to happen. That’s why the role of philanthropy has been incredible,” she says.  

The United Way of Genesee County and the Community Foundation of Greater Flint have become two of the main hubs for relief in Flint. Leaders from the CFGF say they’ve had more than 15,000 private and corporate donors giving money, which they then dispense to various causes. 

Hanna-Attisha worked with the Community Foundation of Greater Flint to establish the Flint Child’s Health and Development Fund, which she calls, for short, “The Flint kids fund.”

So far that fund has raised about $10 million. 

That’s a lot of money. It’s a good thing. But to do the long-term work that needs to be done, the fund needs to have about $50 million, says Kathi Horton, president of the CFGF. 

“It’s not enough, but it’s a filler,” Hanna-Attisha adds. “It’s this tomorrow fund. It is to fund all the child development-promoting interventions in the community.”

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, a worldwide philanthropic organization based in Flint, has also helped out, including $4 million of the required $16 million spent just to help the city of Flint switch its water supply back to Detroit (“unheard of,” Hanna-Attisha says), and has coordinated with other large philanthropic organizations to raise money for different programs in Flint, like an early literacy program being spearheaded by the Carnegie Foundation.

There are other things that have Hanna-Attisha excited, including that Flint schools, which until recently had one nurse for the entire district of about 6,500 students now has 10 nurses throughout the district due to funding from the state. 

Soon there will be mobile preschools traveling through the city, teaching students about language, science, and art, but also teaching their parents about the importance of preschool, as well as a mobile food market taking nutritious foods to neighborhoods that need it.

Which, again, is more good news, but Hanna-Attisha still isn’t satisfied. “We need a full grocery store, we need subsidies, we need an expansion of urban farming efforts, which are already beginning,” she says. “People ask, ‘What’s the most important thing we can do for our kids?’ We need living-wage jobs. 

“We have to get to the source of these problems. And I’m very hopeful. I’m very hopeful that Flint will not be defined by this crisis or other crises, but by what we do next.”

 

Preventing Future Flints

Looking toward the future is sort of Hanna-Attisha’s thing.

Her “real job,” as she puts it, is not to save the children of Flint, in or out of the doctor’s office. She’s the director of the Hurley Medical Center/Michigan State University pediatric residency program. 

It’s an academic gig, involving a lot of academic stuff, like setting the curriculum and evaluating pediatric residents.

“It’s more important for me to train the next generation of physician advocates. When you have a hand in education, you can mold them to what you value and it’s a multiplying effect, because they are going to go out for generations more and practice that way,” she says.

If she can indeed mold them into her image, they’ve got a lot to live up to.

The day before, she was in Lansing talking with the lieutenant governor about a newly established task force dedicated to eliminating lead exposure for all Michigan children. After that, she met with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters to talk to them about how they can help with the water crisis, then the state epidemiologist to talk about the creation of a registry of affected people in Flint so they can be followed over time.

By then, it was about lunchtime.

And so her week continues, until Thursday, when she’s back in the clinic, doing the work she actually gets paid for.

“This week is actually light,” she says.

When she’s not doing … well, a lot of things, Hanna-Attisha is also focused on research, studying, monitoring, and logging everything that’s being done for Flint’s kids — in and outside of the doctor’s office. 

Twenty years from now she wants to be able to say to the world: This is what happened to Flint. And this is how we saved it.

“Until we get everything we need for Flint kids, the story needs to be told,” Hanna-Attisha says. “It needs to be told, it needs to be told, and retold, and told and told and told again. So that we can garner whatever resources we need but also to prevent future Flints from happening. 

“Right now is our work. Our work is just beginning.”

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