The world knows her as the doctor who used science to force the state of Michigan to admit it had caused the Flint water crisis.
Following a tip from a friend in 2015, Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was able to prove there had been an increase in children blood lead levels after the city changed its water supply to the Flint River. Now, nearly three years later, she has published a memoir on her efforts to hold the state accountable.
She joined Stateside’s Cynthia Canty to discuss the book What The Eyes Don’t See.
Born in England to Iraqi parents, Hanna-Attisha’s family planned to return to Iraq once her father finished his Ph.D. But as Saddam Hussein began to rise to power in their own country, Hanna-Attisha said her parents knew they could not return. Instead, they immigrated to the United States, first to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and eventually ending up in Royal Oak.
Hanna-Attisha said she always knew she wanted to be a doctor. One night when she was young, her family was traveling from metro Detroit back to Houghton. Their car hit a patch of black ice and spun out of control. Hanna-Attisha, who was just five years old broke her neck and fractured her jaw. She had to have multiple surgeries and spent a long time in a Traverse City hospital.
“What I remember from that time was the care that I got, and I remember very vividly a young doctor who came to our side. And my mom was worried. She spoke limited English, no medical knowledge,” Hanna-Attisha said. “My mom noticed that my face was crooked. And this young doctor was dark-skinned, she had dark hair, she had a white coat on, and she held my hand and said ‘You were in a terrible accident. You are going to be okay.'”
Thirty years later, Hanna-Attisha has become that doctor, looking over a community of children who have experienced great injury and ensuring them they are going to be okay.
When Hanna-Attisha’s friend and water expert Elin Betanzo raised concerned about the water in Flint, Hanna-Attisha assured her it was fine because that's what she was being told.
But Betanzo had seen a memo from a former colleague at the Environmental Protection Agency that indicated Flint was not treating its water, and because of that there was likely lead in the water. Hanna-Attisha said she was in disbelief when she heard this.
“This is America, the richest country in the history of the world,” Hanna-Attisha recalled thinking. “It is Michigan, literally in the middle of the largest source of freshwater in the world. Despite that, there are laws and regulations, and there is people whose main job is to make sure our waters safe.”
Hanna-Attisha began looking into this issue along with a team of scientists, including Virginia Tech water expert Dr. Marc Edwards.
Edwards had already been called into Flint by concerned citizens. He drove up in a minivan of graduate students and supplies and began working with Flint residents to test water all over the city for lead.
“That's where this crisis should have ended,” Hanna-Attisha said. “It never should have gotten to the point of me. So when I think of this crisis, I think of it as a series of dominoes and I am the last domino. It should have stopped when that first mom said ‘Hey there’s something wrong with my water.'”
After just 28 days, Hanna-Attisha and her team were able to collect enough data to prove blood lead levels had increased since the city switched water sources. Once they had that data in hand, her team decided to hold a press conference at the hospital.
“I am not a patient person, I’m an action person,” Hanna-Attisha said. “I wanted to get this out as soon as possible because I wanted people to take precautions, so I was relieved. I was ready for that press conference. I wanted to shout these results from a mountaintop.”
But following the press conference, government officials began working to discredit Hanna-Attisha’s findings. The MDEQ called her results "unfortunate" and Governor Snyder’s office alleged that her data was diced and spliced.
Writing her memoir brought back all of the emotions she was experiencing at that time, said Hanna-Attisha.
“You know when the entire state tells you you are wrong it is hard not to believe it,” Hanna-Attisha said. “I began to believe them, and I was scared.”
Ultimately, Hanna-Attisha said that she found the strength to keep fighting.
"I realized that my science, my facts, my evidence, my research was about numbers. But that every single number in my research was a kid, was a child, was one of my Flint kids. ... And it is those kids and it was their names and it was their faces that woke me up and put me back in this ring and got me to fight back for them."
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha will be at an author talk and book signing Wednesday June 27 6:30 p.m. at Stagecrafters in Royal Oak to benefit the Flint Kids Fund.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Sophie Sherry.