As the Flint Water Crisis (or catastrophe, depending on your choice of words) tragically continues, this past week proved to have two landmark events for me in relation to the crisis.
On Wednesday, February 3, 2016, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha gave her talk, “Flint Drinking Water Crisis: Background and Next Steps” at UM SPH. At this point, if you haven’t heard of Dr. Hanna-Attisha, you really should know who she is. Dr. Hanna-Attisha is the pediatrician and public health professional (and SPH alumna) who first identified the dramatically increased blood lead levels in Flint children last year, and linked this with the water switch source and failure to add anti-corrosion chemicals to the Flint River water.
Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s talk drew more than 500 attendees, with the largest auditorium at SPH filled to capacity and four overflow rooms required! I was later told that this was the most well-attended event in SPH history. A live stream was fed to the other rooms so attendees could see and hear her talk live. (Thank you to Dr. Dana Dolinoy and Dr. Rita Loch-Caruso of the M-LEEaD Center, as well as the UMSPH Media Team, for organizing this event!)
Dr. Hanna-Attisha spoke eloquently, passionately, and clearly about the missteps that had led to this crisis. But perhaps more importantly, she talked about two things: (1) how this toxic presence affects the children of Flint, who already face some of the most distressing and pervasive obstacles to health and success; and (2) what can be done now and in the future to mitigate the effects. To that end, she has set up the Flint Child Health & Development Fund to collect donations to “support the delivery of critical public health, medical, and community-based services and interventions that address and mitigate the short and long term impacts experienced by Flint, Michigan children exposed to lead as the result of the 2014-2016 Flint Water Crisis.”
I was so honored to hear Dr. Hanna-Attisha speak. She’s one of those people who, when you hear them speak, you get goosebumps. Her conviction is so clear, so inspiring. And the resounding thought that had been going through my head ever since I had heard of the Flint Water Crisis (and was especially pronounced after her talk) was: these are children. Who could do this to children? (But that’s a post for another blog).
Before Dr. Hanna-Attisha had arrived on campus, I had signed up to volunteer on Saturday, February 7, with the American Red Cross (ARC) in Flint, Michigan to distribute water donations directly to Flint residents. (A big thank you to Dana Thomas with the SPH Office of Public Health Practice for organizing this!) I had been viscerally struck with the incredibly tragic situation in Flint but hearing Dr. Hanna-Attisha made me even more eager to get out and do something.
So Saturday morning, myself and about 15 other SPH volunteers began bright and early, departing from SPH in car pools at 8am. I carpooled with three other students from SPH: Claire and Ashley, both second-year Epid students, and Grace, a first-year EHS student (Claire kindly drove us in her car). We arrived at the Flint ARC right before 9am and shortly afterwards, two ARC employees, Leslie and Kristy, explained the protocol for donating water.
Our day was a little different than other distributions because a heroic couple, a young lady and her fiancé, had driven from Chicago at 3am to deliver a rental truck filled with donated water. It turns out that she worked at Chase Bank in Chicago and she and her coworkers had banded together to donate a truck filled with over 100 cases and gallons of clean drinking water, at their own expense. So instead of using the ARC vehicles as the central point of distribution, we used their truck.
Once we had organized our route in relation to the other volunteers, our car took off to distribute the water we had loaded into Claire’s car. We parked at the midpoint at our designated street and began. Of the four of us, we rotated who carried the clipboard where we had to take note of the house address, type of house (which also indicates if it’s vacated), number of cases delivered, and any other information as needed. The other three of us would carry the cases of water to each house, knock on the door, and deliver it to residents if they were home. If they weren’t (and the house was not vacated), we would leave it on the porch.
In total, our team delivered 27 cases of water; in combination with the other teams, we delivered every single one of the cases and gallons that the couple had driven from Chicago for distribution to Flint residents.
I have to note: this was my first trip to Flint. Since I’m not a Flint resident, I was particularly careful to observe but not make the mistake of thinking that the snapshot of Flint I saw in one day represented the whole.
That being said, I did allow myself to make one generality: the residents of Flint were, to a one, some of the kindest and most gracious people I’ve had the honor of meeting.
Every resident we hand-delivered cases to sincerely thanked us. When one resident’s barking dogs ran out to us when she opened the front door to receive the case of water, she apologized profusely for the disruption, in between thanking us for delivering water.
One resident two doors down arrived at his house and I jogged over, still carrying the case. He jogged out to meet me, repeatedly thanking us all for delivering the water. Two young children peered at us from the living room window. An older woman thanked us and told us to stay warm out there; her front door and car were proudly emblazoned with the U.S. Marine Corps motto “Semper fi” and “You will not be forgotten.”
Once we had finished delivering cases, we called ARC and asked about our next steps. They coordinated with the other teams and then said we could head back to headquarters. When we arrived, they indicated that we were done for our role and could leave. By then, the headquarters was bustling with individuals volunteering for data entry and GIS.
On our drive up to Flint, Ashley had mentioned that she had visited the Flint Farmer’s Market as part of a class last semester and I wished we had time to visit. But! Luck was on my side. Since we had delivered the water, we finished a little earlier than scheduled. So, Claire, Ashley, Grace and I decided that we would visit the Flint Farmer’s Market (FFM).
In a way, this visit to FFM made what’s happening in Flint all the more painful. The FFM is beautiful: it’s architecturally stunning and it was a vibrant, bustling marketplace for that Saturday’s lunchtime. There was a cultural event in the large seating area; shops and booths were busy; and the Flint Children’s Museum had a rock climbing wall for kids.
Housed above FFM is the brand-new Hurley Children’s Center, where Dr. Hanna-Attisha works. To her knowledge, they are the first and only clinic in the U.S. that is housed directly above a farmer’s market. It’s also at the center of the city bus routes. This was intentional because it eliminates one of the most important obstacles her patients face to receive healthcare: transportation. In addition, she can now make sure that her patients have access to good nutrition, giving them prescriptions for fresh vegetables and fruits that they can purchase at affordable prices just downstairs.
The four of us got lunch; FFM was so busy that we asked to share a table with an older gentleman. Once we had settled in, I began speaking with him and within minutes, all five of us had a lively discussion going. It turns out Willy, a 66-year old Flint resident, had lived in Flint almost his entire life. He had worked at GM, was a Vietnam veteran, and was now retired. He spoke fondly of his travels, while noting that he always returned ‘home’ to Flint.
When I asked him about his thoughts on the Flint water crisis, he responded that he had begun drinking bottled water ever since they had switched the water source, only choosing to shower in it. But then he said, “but I don’t have children. Some folks have children.”
My conversation with Willy reminded me of Flint’s renowned past as a powerhouse and that it has so much to offer even now. Hurley Children’s Center housed above FFM, is a tribute and crown jewel, testifying to the work of those who love their city and want to see the coming generations thrive, even as every obstacle is thrown in their path.
In short, it’s a testament to dignity and human spirit. As I stood on the quiet residential street in Flint and in the midst of the milling crowds of people at FFM, I kept thinking and hoping that we as a country will not fail the children of Flint once again.
After posting this, I was honored to receive the message below from the University of Michigan President, Dr. Mark Schlissel on February 10.
Later that week, I even had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Schlissel in his office about the Flint Water Crisis. Thank you so much, Dr. Schlissel, for your recognition and time!
Sarah S. Bassiouni, B.S., PBT(ASCP), is an MPH Candidate and Dean’s Scholar in the Hospital and Molecular Epidemiology Track at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. You can read more of her work here and here.