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Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is a hero for our time

Jack Lessenberry

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, who you might call the woman who saved the children of Flint, was only given 15 minutes to talk at the Mackinac Policy Conference, a brief space sandwiched between other events Wednesday, called a “Mackinac Moment.”

But it was by far the most compelling session of the conference. She showed a picture of one of her young patients she recently examined, a child who had been drinking lead-contaminated water until quite recently.

“Her mom asked me, ‘Is she going to be okay?’

What do I tell her mom? Do I tell her she has been drinking through a lead-painted straw? Do I tell her what science shows lead can do?”

Hanna-Attisha’s message was so powerful and her speaking style so compelling that it occurred to me that the candidates for governor ought to be grateful she has no interest in running for office.

After her talk, I sat down with her for a few moments.

Last September, Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at the Hurley Medical Center in Flint, put her career on the line, holding a press conference to announce Flint’s children were being poisoned by lead in the water.

She and her research were immediately denounced by the state.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality called her research “irresponsible.” But before long, she was vindicated, and some of those who sneered at her were fired.

Ever since then, she’s been fighting for the children. She does constant interviews, speeches, and still sees patients and runs a program – all without the benefit of a single handler or PR firm.

I was curious to know how she did it.

“Oh, in science we have this thing called cloning now – there are really about nine of me,” she laughed.

Her husband, Elliott Attisha, is also a physician who has been incredibly supportive of his wife’s work.

Her two daughters, who are seven and 10, maybe not so much.

“Ever since you became famous you are never home,” the seven-year-old told her.

“Can we get a cat?”

“We’re not getting a cat,” her mom said. She then showed me a picture of the cat, an orange tabby named Simba, with her adorable daughter.

These days, when Dr. Mona talks, the world listens. I was curious as to whether she planned to use her bully pulpit to speak out on other children’s health issues.

“Many people have asked me that,” she told me, “but I want to stick on this issue right now.”

Flint’s children, she told me, will need help for years and years, and she wants to make sure they aren’t forgotten.

Once a week, she is part of a group who meet with Governor Snyder, whose administration tried to destroy her credibility.

“It was a little awkward at first, but it’s fine now. I feel that he has owned his responsibility,” she told me.

“Besides,” she added, “I’m going to have to get along with the next five governors, because that’s how long this problem will last.”

By the way, Dr. Mona is an immigrant, born in Great Britain in 1976 to parents who fled Iraq. She has said that if Donald Trump was president, “I wouldn’t be allowed here.”

Think what a tragedy that might have been.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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