I have a new hero. Her name is Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha is a pediatrician in Flint, Michigan. She grew up in a suburb of Detroit. She graduated from the University of Michigan before attending medical school at Michigan State University. During her clinical years (the 3rd and 4th years of medical school), she spent many months at Hurley Medical Center in Flint, which serves as a clinical training site for MSU medical students (far from the flagship campus — something I can relate to).
As you may know from recent news, Flint has had some problems — especially due to an overabundance of lead in its drinking water.
For cost-saving reasons, the city of Flint switched the source of its drinking water from the Detroit system to the Flint River in April 2014. Almost immediately residents of the town began noticing the water looked, smelled, and tasted different. It took nearly a year and half for both state and federal officials to acknowledge that there was too much lead in the Flint water — repeatedly questioning the evidence that it was so.
That’s where our new hero comes in.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha directs a pediatric residency training program at Hurley. There are 190 pediatric residency training programs in the United States, training in total about 2600 pediatricians every year.
I can relate to this part of her job — my most recent role was directing an internal medicine residency. Though the medical issues are different (kids vs. adults), residency program directors have three essential jobs: recruiting medical school graduates, charting the learning curriculum, and making sure the program stays accredited.
Program directors become role models for trainees. We try to inspire and motivate residents, offering career and life advice during what is a demanding three-year training curriculum.
On top of clearly being good at this role for her residents (7 per class for a total of 20 or so residents), Dr. Hanna-Attisha uses her MPH training to do science — in this particular case epidemiology.
She combed through records at her medical center and discovered that lead levels measured in children’s blood in Flint (as part of routine pediatric care) had on average nearly doubled since the time of the water source switch. Though her claims were at first disputed by state officials, Dr. Hanna-Attisha kept at it, talking to parents, hospital leadership, and advocating with state and federal officials.
In the end, the simple elegance of her team’s science got the message across. The story has now received national attention, including the declaration of a federally-recognized state of emergency in Flint over its water supply.
I was researching Dr. Hanna-Attisha, and came across this TED-like talk she gave at a Michigan State College of Medicine event in 2014. It predates the Flint water story, but it shows her to be a dedicated public servant — not only committed to her trainees and her patients, but beyond that to questioning the very core of what makes people unhealthy: the social determinants of health.
Take a look and let me know what you think.
John Schumann is an internal medicine physician who blogs at GlassHospital.
Image credit: MSNBC