‘What the Eyes Don’t See’


October 9, 2018

Editor’s note: MaKenna Whitworth is the fall intern for the Coalition on Human Needs and is a senior majoring in political science at Brigham Young University

By Makenna Whitworth

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha

Entering the bright and cool doctor’s office accompanied by her mother, Mikayla clambers up onto the brown, cushioned exam table, allowing her legs to hang over the side and swing gently while the sanitary paper crinkles beneath her weight. The doctor enters, smiling, and introduces herself to Mikayla’s mother. The doctor then turns cheerfully to the young girl and asks, “How old are you?” Mikayla, with all the energy and enthusiasm characteristic of a child her age, eagerly proclaims, “I am 4!”

The doctor then asks Mikayla, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” But rather than claiming an occupation that other children her age may aspire to become such as a doctor, teacher, firefighter, princess or superhero, Mikayla simply states, “I want to be 5 when I grow up,” as if she already knows that each next year of life is an accomplishment.

Unfortunately, this story is not just a disheartening anecdote. Mikayla is a real child, living in Flint, Michigan in October 2016 when this event occurred, and the doctor is Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, MD, MPH, who shared a powerful first-hand account of the Flint water crisis as the keynote speaker at the First Focus Children’s Budget Summit on Oct. 4. Dr. Hanna-Attisha is credited for uncovering the Flint water crisis with her research in 2015 and has received numerous awards for her work. Today, she directs the Michigan State University-Hurley Children’s Hospital Pediatric Public Health Initiative and continues to advocate for Flint children’s health and safety.

Physicians take an oath to protect patients from harm, but pediatricians can only influence 15 to 20 percent of a child’s health; the remainder rests on local environmental and personal living conditions. Though 20 percent of the Earth’s fresh water – the largest group of freshwater lakes on Earth –  surrounds Michigan, the water found in Flint is not okay. The city’s switch to supplying water from the Flint river resulted in a 200 percent increase in the number of children infected by lead poisoning, and Flint children live 15 years less than those living in neighboring zip codes. “When children are exposed to trauma, it messes with their brain, impacts their development, and literally shaves years off their life,” Dr. Hanna-Attisha explains. Taking these statistics into consideration, Mikayla’s proclamation truly is an achievement.

Flint’s water crisis is emblematic of an environmental travesty in which those in charge are more concerned about power and money than keeping people, particularly children, safe. Children like Mikayla were not only poisoned by lead-tainted water, but by poor public policy implemented by a government that has failed them. But as Dr. Hanna-Attisha asserted, there is another side of this story – a story of hope. “Sometimes I think that our country is literally at war with children…[but] we are doing everything we can to tip the scale in [children’s] favor,” she says.

Dr. Hanna-Attisha’s advocacy has not only lead to action against the Flint water crisis, but she has helped expand home visiting programs, child care centers, universal preschool, Medicare and WIC, behavioral help programs, mobile grocery stores, and “every program we know that helps children” in Flint.

Children represent the future of our societies. “You don’t judge a society by how it treats its rich and powerful, but by how it treats its weakest members…It is our responsibility to open our eyes and to help others open their eyes to the injustices surrounding us.” By so doing, we can join our voices with Dr. Hanna-Attisha in saying, “I’m prescribing prescriptions for hope.”

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha is the author of What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City in which she provides a powerful first-hand account of the Flint water crisis and her personal advocacy.

lead poisoning