By Weam Namou
The recently released book, What the Eyes Don’t See: A Story of Crisis, Resistance, and Hope in an American City, reveals the inspiring story of how Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, accompanied by a distinctive team of researchers, parents, friends, and community leaders, proved that Flints’ kids were exposed to lead and then fought her own government and a brutal backlash to expose that truth to the world.
Dr. Mona’s book begins with stories of her early Chaldean family life and throughout, interweaves the influence of that culture in her upbringing. Born in England, it was her grandfather Haji who came up with her name Mona, which means “hope, wish, or desire,” thinking it would be easy for both English and Arabic speakers to pronounce. Her family lived in England as her father, Michael David Hanna, studied at the University of Sheffield for a doctorate in metallurgy.
Trained as a chemist in Iraq, Dr. Mona’s mother was an avid reader who at bedtime, entertained her children with stories of the ancient capital of Baghdad, once the most advanced, prosperous, and progressive civilization in the world – the center of mathematics, astronomy, and medicine. She would weave stories of Mesopotamia’s history with strands of mysticism and fables, the romantic tales of Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin as told by Shahrazad.
Dr. Mona’s parents always assumed they’d be returning to Iraq one day, but over time, they realized that “the Iraq they knew was lost, replaced by war and ruins.” Eventually they immigrated to the United States, and lived in Houghton, in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where her father was a postdoctoral researcher at Michigan Tech University. Mona started elementary school at age four, after her parents mistakenly wrote her birth date in European style on the school forms; it was misunderstood as September 12 rather than December 9, so she was always the youngest in her class.
After her father finished his postdoc and was hired by GM, the family moved to Royal Oak where they lived for the next fifteen years. Mona and her older brother Michael were only a handful of other minority kids in their schools and experienced their share of being called “camel jockeys” and other ethnic slurs.
Mona writes that though these incidents were infrequent, they did seem to coincide with U.S. military actions against Arab countries, usually Iraq, that kids were hearing about in the news. “Even though we didn’t talk about them, they stung.”
But she confers that the promise of America worked for her family like it did with so many immigrants over the centuries. Her mother eventually returned to college to validate her chemistry degree from Baghdad University, getting a master’s in chemistry and a teaching certificate at the same time. She ended up working in school districts. As for her father, he never really stopped working.
Dr. Mona had wanted to be a doctor as far back as she can remember, attributing this desire to several factors: obsessively watching M*A*S*H reruns growing up; the story about her grandfather Haji when he fell out of a tree and doctors took care of his broken leg; the family car accident that led her, as a child, to the hospital where a caring physician made it seem like everything was going to be okay.
Given that her parents are both scientists who raised their children to love multiplication and periodic tables and the majestic order of the natural sciences, it wasn’t difficult for Mona to enter a field that dealt with biology, chemistry and math. “Education was the religion of our family, embraced as a way to a better life but also a richer, more intellectually alive existence.”
In high school, Mona had powerful experiences as an environmental activist so she created an environmental health major at University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, merging environmental science and pre-med courses. That’s where her passion for activism, service, and research were solidified, followed by four years of medical school at Michigan State University, where her last two clinical years were in Flint.
Mona beautifully describes her love for attending to children and helps heal them and make them feel better. “A crying baby gives me a sense of mission. Deep inside I have a powerful, almost primal drive to make them feel better, to help them thrive. Most pediatricians do.”
Her husband, Elliott, is also a pediatrician.
In her book, Mona mentions the story of her distant cousin, a bacteriologist named Paul Shekwana, one of the first public health scientists from the Middle East, from Iraq, to work in America. After studying at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons in England, he was hired in 1904 by the department of pathology at George Washington University in D.C. Shortly afterward, he was called to Iowa City, where a deadly outbreak of typhoid fever had struck.
He was brought in to work with the Iowa State Board of Health Bacteriology Lab, where an entire floor of the new Iowa City Medical Building was given over to his lab team. There, Shekwana investigated, among other things, the tie between unpasteurized milk and typhoid. But he didn’t stop there; he promoted new public health regulations in Iowa and beyond. His most important contribution, Mona writes, may have been an article published in the New York Medical Society Journal in 1906, urging all doctors to wash and disinfect their hands throughout the day, particularly before and after seeing patients.
Over a century later, there are undeniable similarities between Shekwana’s and Mona’s careers. After a friend told her that researchers found high levels of lead in Flint residents’ homes, Dr. Mona performed her own research and discovered this to be true. In a September 4, 2015 press conference, she urged residents, especially children, to stop drinking the water. This was a risk to her career as traditionally her research had to be scientifically peer reviewed.
Not long after, the City of Flint, the State of Michigan, and the United States made emergency announcements. Dr. Mona initially received some backlash from the State of Michigan, but after The Detroit Free Press published its own findings consistent with hers, they backed down.
Dr. Mona testified twice before Congress about the Flint Water Crisis and, due to her advocacy, $100 million in federal dollars was allocated to Flint in addition to some $250 million in state dollars to address the crisis. She brought the fight for justice to national attention and she’s not done yet.