A year of sacrifice for doctor, family over Flint

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News
Its been a year since Hurley Medical Center researcher Dr. Mona Hanna Attisha released her findings showing high levels of lead in Flint children.

Flint — When she finally had time to check, Mona Hanna-Attisha’s new Fitbit indicated her heart rate had come close to 200 beats per minute during her debut on the main stage of Flint’s water crisis.

It was a year ago, just after a Sept. 24, 2015, press conference where the pediatrician demonstrated statistically that Flint’s children — despite the assurances of state and federal officials — were being poisoned by lead in the city’s drinking water. And it was the starting point for what has became 12 months in absolute overdrive.

Becoming one of the whistleblowers in the Flint lead contamination crisis has heaped more duties on the director of Hurley Medical Center’s pediatrics program.

The Flint doctor has made repeated trips to Washington, D.C., and Lansing to lobby for funding to back health initiatives, and water infrastructure work, to deal with the fallout from the crisis.

She also has presented her research at conferences around the country and spread her message on the dangers of lead — from Time and Glamour magazines, to the New York Times, to television appearances on MSNBC’s “Rachel Maddow Show” and Comedy Central’s “The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore.”

“In this last week, I will have been in five different states,” Hanna-Attisha said, struggling to recall her recent and upcoming schedule. “So it’s crazy.”

It has also meant an ongoing education about the threat lead poses to Flint’s children — a population Hanna-Attisha refers to as “my kids.” In recent months, she has been preaching the dangers posed by plumbing fixtures constructed with large amounts of lead. The products weren’t taken off the market until 2014, meaning service line replacement in Flint won’t be a cure-all.

“I will never again recommend that people drink unfiltered water, especially for vulnerable populations,” she said during an interview in her Hurley office. “So if there is a pregnant mom or there is a child on formula, they should always be using filtered water.”

In Flint, Hanna-Attisha’s words carry a great deal of weight. The city’s residents remain highly skeptical of federal and state officials after 29 months of dealing with water they don’t trust.

Flint resident Lee-Anne Walters was the initial driving force behind bringing the city’s water crisis to light and continues her efforts. Concerns over her own water in her Flint home, with troublesome high levels of lead, pushed her into the role of crusader for nine months before the area’s medical community stepped in last September.

But her constant efforts produced little from state and federal regulators other than reassurances the city’s water was fine. So an already frustrated Walters was “hopeful, but guarded” about her expectations for Hanna-Attisha — particularly after government health officials initially challenged her research.

“She could have said, ‘No, I’m not going to fight back on this,’ ” Walters said this week. “But she did continue to fight.”

Tenacity to persevere

Hanna-Attisha’s crusade has caused her to keep a schedule of a rock star — a term, coincidentally, used by Hurley’s public relations officials. But Hanna-Attisha continues to wield her status to benefit Flint. She estimated she has been to Washington, D.C., six times in the past year to lobby lawmakers for funding to help Flint deal with its continuing water woes.

It remains unclear whether Congress will pass aid for Flint before the end of this year.

U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, D-Flint Township, described Hanna-Attisha as an ally throughout the crisis.

“Her tenacity and determination to keep this issue in the spotlight shows how much she and the community care about the future of the children in Flint,” Kildee said. “My hometown is fortunate to have someone like Dr. Mona in their corner.”

A willingness to work through the government process, however, does not translate into a complete trust of its agencies. Hanna-Attisha remembered the “emotionally and physically jarring” weeks following her press conference, when Michigan officials initially challenged her findings and seemed to move painfully slow in helping Flint residents.

Her analysis showed the percentage of Flint infants and children with lead levels above average had almost doubled. In the city’s highest-risk areas, the number had nearly tripled.

In the following days, a spokesman for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality called Hanna-Attisha’s comments on the situation “unfortunate” and stated that the water was safe. He later resigned in late December.

“This has shattered my trust in government,” she said. “You see that every day in the people of Flint. They have significantly lost trust.”

High-profile interactions

Advocacy opportunities pop up in the strangest places, and Hannah-Attisha won’t often pass them up. In April, she attended Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People gala in New York City. The publication had named Hanna-Attisha and Virginia Tech University researcher Marc Edwards to the list for their efforts as “whistle-blowers for Flint.”

She and her husband, fellow pediatrician Dr. Elliott Attisha, were seated at a table in Lincoln Center when she spied Donald Trump. Off she went.

Hanna-Attisha said the conversation centered on her urging Trump to visit Flint and learn about the crisis. Last week, five months after their meeting, Trump visited Flint for the first time after promising that he would during an early September Detroit News interview.

The last year has brought Hanna-Attisha face-to-face with high-profile officials, celebrities and other activists from around the globe — a development that still amazes her.

This week, she was scheduled to be in Washington on an American Academy of Pediatrics panel that included child rights activist Marian Wright Edelman and Alma Powell, chair of America’s Promise.

“Alma Powell, Colin Powell’s wife, and me,” she marveled. “Like, what?”

Balancing the family life

But every minute spent with well-known strangers is time away from her Flint clinic and her family in West Bloomfield. She and Elliott Attisha have two daughters, 10-year-old Nina and 8-year-old Layla. The children have handled their mother’s last year differently.

“My older one, I think, gets it more,” Hanna-Attisha said. “She ... says whenever the teacher talks about Flint, she loves hearing about (it). ... My younger one was in second grade when all this started. ... She just missed mom, largely.”

Even the youngest, however, quickly learned the art of political pressure. Layla had wanted a cat but her requests had often been thwarted due to her father’s allergies.

“I came home one night and she’s like ‘mom, ever since you’ve become famous, you’re not home to cuddle with,’ ” Hanna-Attisha said. “... Like, stick a knife in your chest and turn it.”

Needless to say, the family now has a cat, and Elliott Attisha has increased his allergy medication.

In the midst of it all, Elliott Attisha said his wife still finds a way to be there for her family — attending school meetings, helping with homework and reading to the kids before bed.

“She’s also made it to every soccer game these past two seasons,” he said.

As a pediatrician who works with and advocates for Detroit children, Elliott Attisha uniquely understands the importance of the platform his wife has been given.

“Every child that walks in her door and every child in her community, she treats like her own kids,” he said. “And when you do that, you’ll go well above and beyond to make sure they get the help that they need ... I wouldn’t expect anything less of any pediatrician out there.”