Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha of West Bloomfield is known for discovering dangerous levels of lead found in Flint children during the Flint water crisis. She now directs the Michigan State University and Hurley Children’s Hospital Public Health Initiative, an innovative public health program.
As told to Stephanie Steinberg
Photography by Jenna Belevender
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, author of the new book “What the Eyes Don’t See,” is at the helm of a pediatric public health initiative built to mitigate the impact of the Flint water crisis that exposed thousands of Flint kids to lead.
It’s all about improving children’s health, doing things outside of the box and working in partnership with kids and parents and community to turn the story around for Flint kids.
What we are doing is so cool and innovative because it’s not just for Flint. Our work is not limited to the kids here. And that’s what I hope what this book shows is that the story of Flint is not isolated. It is about crises that are happening all over this country, be it from democracy or environmental injustice or loss of health care or assault on children. Kids in Detroit and kids all over this nation wake up in the same situations as Flint kids, the same nightmares that make your ZIP code at birth more powerful than your genetic code. Kids in Flint will actually live 15 years less than kids in an adjacent neighboring ZIP code, but that’s not unique to Flint. That is all over this country.
So we’re disseminating what we’re doing here to other communities. For example, in my capacity of the Michigan chapter of pediatricians, for the new administration, governor and Legislature, we created this blueprint for Michigan children. This is, based on science, what all kids need. All kids in Michigan need families who have living wages, paid family leave, healthy nutrition, safe neighborhoods and safe water. But the neat thing is that this is built on what we’re already doing in Flint. So we’re using this model that we built, and we’re expanding it to the state.
Hanna-Attisha created a nutrition prescription program so that every kid who comes to Hurley’s clinic gets a $15 prescription for healthy living. They can then fill it at the farmers market below the clinic and receive $15 worth of fruits and vegetables.
Some moms are like, “My kid has never had a blueberry before. We’ve never been able to afford this.” I used to tell my patients, you should eat avocados and kale, and they would just stare at me like, “Where the heck am I going to get avocados and kale? I can’t afford that, and we have no grocery stores. It’s much easier for me to go to a party store or fast food.”
Our nutrition prescription program is robustly evaluated by academics, and we’ve shown great success. Sen. (Debbie) Stabenow, another amazing woman role model very much part of the Flint story, is aware of our nutrition prescription program. So she actually put a prescription program in the U.S. Farm Bill. Just a couple months ago it passed, and it was inspired by our clinic. So here is another example of how our innovations here, in terms of doing what kids need and building a healthy future, is being spread all over this nation. This is becoming a national program, and it’s going to be administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is really exciting!
It doesn’t stop there. Hanna-Attisha has helped bring mobile grocery stores, breastfeeding services, two free year-round preschools and children’s literacy programs to Flint.
In places like Flint, there’s about one book for every 300 children. By the time kids in these communities have reached the age of 3, research shows that they’ve heard about 30 million less words. By 18 months, there’s an achievement gap that’s already visible. By kindergarten, it’s almost impossible to bridge. So in response to the crisis, we have massively invested in early literacy. I got a small grant from The Aspen Institute in 2016, which launched Flint Kids Read.
Now in Flint, every single kid gets a book delivered in the mail from ages 0 to 5. It’s part of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. I think over 40,000 books have been mailed. Currently there’s over 5,000 kids in that program.
And, yes, she’s had a hand in every program.
It’s amazing. I have gone from taking care of one child at a time — like literally holding the hand of one kid at a time — to be able to hold the hand of a population of children. But the neat thing is that it’s exceeded the boundaries of the city, it’s exceeded the boundaries of the state and we’ve been able to make an impact at a much, much bigger and broader level.
Hanna-Attisha went into medicine never expecting to write a book.
Then after the crisis, everybody and their brother was telling me to write a book, do a movie, all these things. I was like, “Go away. I’m so busy. I have so much work to do.” Because from the moment we realized what was happening, our focus became building this model innovative program. But then I realized that it was almost a dare, like I needed to share the story because people needed to realize what was happening on American soil. Like how could this be in the 21st century in America, in the richest country in the world, that for a year and a half brown water was coming out of people’s taps, and nobody did anything?
I came to this country for what all immigrants come — for freedom, for democracy, for opportunity, for the American Dream. And I wake up absolutely lucky every single day to be in this country, but also acutely aware of what injustice can be and what people in power can do to vulnerable populations. So it was that kind of milieu of my childhood that made me go into medicine, that made me be in Flint, that made me serve my community.