Response and Recovery: MSU Aids Flint
June 27, 2016
On January 5, 2016, the Flint water crisis gained national attention when a state of emergency was declared. The National Guard, humanitarian groups, community leaders, the federal government, and universities have worked tirelessly to alleviate the burden area residents have to carry; with unsafe levels of lead and contaminants in the tap water, citizens of Flint have no choice but to use bottled water for drinking.
Upon switching the city’s water source in 2013, the following years came with complaints from residents, the discovery of E. coli in the tap water, and government assurance that the water remained safe. In 2015, there was evidence of contaminated water with the discovery of increased levels of lead in the children of Flint. The ensuing events – a spike in Legionnaire’s disease leading to ten deaths, a logistical nightmare in delivering safe water to residents, and the difficult task of assigning blame - sparked a public health disaster.
Michigan State University’s commitment to a better tomorrow has revealed itself as a powerful force in the water crisis’ recovery measures; College of Nursing faculty have spearheaded initiatives that assist Flint residents. Advanced Practice Registered Nurse, Patrick Hawkins, leads efforts to increase access to care for Flint residents, while Rhonda Conner-Warren, Assistant Professor, volunteers her skills to make a difference in the community that raised her. Alongside numerous MSU nursing faculty and students, four community service events have delivered on-site care via counseling and lead screening to more than 4,700 residents.
After working at one of the lead screening events, Sue Wiers, CON DNP ‘16, shares her perspective on the generational impact of this crisis and how the nursing community can work to solve it:
A Nurse’s Obligation
The morning of February 21st, 2016, I briefly hesitated as I reached for the water glass sitting on my bedside stand. If I lived in Flint, the simple act of drinking tap water could not be taken for granted. I was volunteering that morning at a lead screening event in Flint, Michigan at the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church.
Later in the day, the sign posted at the sink where I was washing my hands warning about the lead content of the water gave me pause. Reading about the situation in Flint and the long-term consequences for children with elevated serum lead levels did not prepare me for the humanity of this crisis.
I will never forget faces of the children I saw that day; their lives are potentially forever changed due to circumstances beyond their control.
Hawkins has taken responsibility for coordinating nurse practitioner and nursing student volunteers for Flint lead screening events. Hawkins’ involvement in lead screenings stemmed from his 12 years of working with community organizations in Flint that coordinated screening fairs for hypertension and renal disease. This is his community, and Hawkins inherently understands the lived experiences of Flint residents.
At the end of the day, I returned to my Macomb County home where residents are concerned about what has happened in Flint, but do not live with daily uncertainty about the long term effects of lead exposure in their children. For the residents of Flint, the aftermath of the water crisis will be lifelong.
When the attention of the press and politicians shifts to other issues, the children of Flint will continue to be affected by elevated serum lead levels. Our societal mandate to advocate and care for vulnerable populations obliges the nursing community to ensure that resources continue to be dedicated to help the Flint residents long after the cameras are gone.
Similar to Hawkins, Rhonda Conner-Warren is a Flint native touched by a community in need. She comments on her experiences in Flint:
I Thought You Forgot About Me
When a 93-year-old senior who attended a recent food giveaway and health screening stated, “I thought you forgot about me,” an image of my Grandmother came to mind. A pang of regret and an ache of sorrow instantly came over me.
As Hawkins pushes Ms. Mary in her wheelchair, he expounds on how deserving and special she is. Ms. Mary is beaming and quick to say “thank you” to Hawkins. It is in this moment that I know I am here to serve a greater purpose than myself. I made a promise to my elders that they could trust that I will be there to take care of them. A sense of pride starts to shine through the pain as I witness this moment of compassionate care.
“My daughter told me about the screening today and I told her I wanted to come. I'm old and know the children come first, but, I drank the water too,” explained Ms. Mary.
Fortunately this health screening was expanded to serve the elderly, as well as the children.
Ms. Mary then asked Eden Wells, Chief Medical Executive for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and I, "Why do you all treat us like children?"
Wells and I are both daughters of senior residents of the Flint area. Earlier, we spoke quietly about caring for our aging parents. As if Ms. Mary had heard our recent conversation from across the room, she inquired on the matter. It was at this point we realized she wasn't speaking to us as professionals; she was speaking to us as daughters of Flint.
"You tell us what to do, we raised you,” said Ms. Mary.
She said this not to admonish our behaviors as healthcare providers, but as daughters. We were both quiet for a moment until thoughtfully responding, “We didn't mean to hurt you. As daughters and children we want the best for our parents, just like you wanted and gave the best for us.”
We didn't forget about you Ms. Mary; you drank the water too! You can trust that I will be back soon to care for you and our parents.