“As the guardians of health, we can’t look away”: Mona Hanna-Attisha accepts the Bernard Lown Award
Seven years ago, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha was faced with a choice: To look away from the potential threat of lead in Flint’s water, or to dive into the controversy with eyes wide open and face gaslighting and criticism from a system built to ignore the problem. When she thought about her patients –her kids– and their futures, Mona knew she had no choice but to tackle this life-threatening issue head-on.
On the 101st birthday of Dr. Lown, hear from the first Bernard Lown Award winner Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha on what we need from clinicians to ensure that more kids can celebrate more birthdays. Watch her acceptance of the Bernard Lown Award and read quotes from her speech below.
Our healthcare system needs more clinicians like Mona who tackle our country’s toughest health challenges and are unafraid to tell the truth. We greatly appreciate your support to keep the award fund sustainable for years to come, and help us amplify the voices of a new generation of courageous doctors.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha accepts the Bernard Lown Award
The following are excerpts from Dr. Mona’s remarks at the Bernard Lown Award ceremony June 7, 2022.
In some ways, my job as a pediatrician is to make sure that our kids have as many good birthdays as possible. A lot of my job is making sure kids are healthy today – broken bones, sniffles, but more importantly, my work – from vaccines to car seats to anticipatory guidance – is about making sure kids have the brightest futures possible.
But as Vikas shared, there was something in the water in Flint that was threatening the tomorrows – the birthdays – of an entire population of children.
One day, I was a pediatrician taking care of one cute kid after another. Asking kids what they want to be when they grow up. Giving out stickers, fist bumps, and hugs.
And the next day, I was facing the dire needs of an entire population of children. With every baby bottle, every sippy cup, every glass of water, my kids were being poisoned by a neurotoxin in the drinking water.
“With every baby bottle, every sippy cup, every glass of water, my kids were being poisoned by a neurotoxin in the drinking water.”Mona Hanna-Attisha
And I had a choice to make. Would I keep my eyes closed and go about my business? And I was busy. I was a pediatrician, residency director, professor, mom, and wife, juggling a million balls in the air just like so many of you are.
Or would I stand up and do something?
There really was no choice. From the moment I knew about the possibility of lead in the water, there was no unknowing it. It was a choiceless choice. I could only go forward. There was too much at stake. My kids and their birthdays.
Making others see was a whole other thing. I ran up against people and entire systems built not to see — even when they did know. It was an indifference – a willful blindness to certain people, problems, and places. And no matter how hard and how scary it seemed, I couldn’t close my eyes.
That makes me think about Dr Lown. Throughout his life, he couldn’t close his eyes to the injustices threatening the health of not just his patients, but of people everywhere.
He saw a problem and he couldn’t unsee the problem. It was only about going forward.
Finding a solution with science and stubbornness.
“For a quick minute, I regretted using my voice. I began to second guess myself… But I quickly realized this wasn’t about me. This was about my kids – and their birthdays.”Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
I leaned into that single-minded science and stubbornness. My doctor role quickly evolved from clinician educator to detective scientist to patient advocate. And even as I offered up that scientific proof – that yes, lead was increasingly in the bodies of our Flint children, my research was met with denials and attacks.
For a quick minute, I regretted using my voice. I began to second guess myself. After all, I was just one person – one doctor – a small brown immigrant woman no less – going against powerful forces.
I thought to myself, maybe I should have just “stayed in my lane.” It would have been easier to keep my eyes closed and my voice silent. But I quickly realized this wasn’t about me. This was about my kids – and their birthdays.
Whether we knew it or not when when we started, by taking on a life in medicine, we have placed ourselves on the front lines of some of the most important battlegrounds of society.
Our work is about standing on those front lines every single day, holding those lines against sickness and disease and also holding those lines against injustice and apathy.
“Working in medicine is about holding those lines against sickness and disease and also holding those lines against injustice and apathy.”Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
Sometimes that means being on guard for a city that’s being poisoned and sometimes that means holding the hand of an isolated covid patient whose life is slipping away. Sometimes that means late nights in the lab figuring out how to prevent sudden cardiac death, and sometimes that means trying to stop nuclear warfare.
Dr. Lown understood that our work is about people. It’s not about the power or prestige or the paycheck. It’s about the people that we are privileged to serve.
He also understood that our work is not restricted to the bedside nor the bench; it’s not just about providing direct patient care to the people in front of us, but it’s also about seeing beyond the obvious and addressing what truly makes our patients healthy.
And I think what Dr. Lown understood the most was that those of us in medicine have a superpower. Our voices are powerful, privileged, and credible. When we speak, grounded in what’s best for our patients, people listen.
I walked out of my clinic and my “MD” was a megaphone for the kids of Flint. I used it and I was loud, and stubborn, and persistent — and it was the voice of medicine that ultimately changed the trajectory of an entire city. And I haven’t let go of that microphone – and I’m going to hold on to it as long as I can to help as many kids as I can, because it’s not just about Flint – there are kids and communities everywhere poisoned by inequities.
“This incredible honor is not so much about me or even Dr. Lown It’s about you – it’s about all of us and who we want to be.”Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
And while I have this microphone a little longer, I just want to share that this incredible honor is not so much about me or even Dr. Lown. It’s about you – it’s about all of us and who we want to be.
Our collective work is unfinished. We have a lot of health injustices that still need solving: Like eliminating poverty, eradicating racism, narrowing inequality, reversing the climate crisis, preserving our fragile democracy, ensuring health care for all, protecting women’s reproductive health, and ending gun violence.
These are some of the upstream threats – the root causes, the underlying diagnoses – that make people sick.
And rather than making the right diagnosis, we too often reactively band-aid. Our communities can not afford to have the guardians of health shut their eyes, look away, and stay silent to injustices that threaten the health of our patients.
And I know this may sound overwhelming, but Dr. Lown said, “Great as the present danger is, far greater is the opportunity.”
My story is about turning a crisis into an opportunity. It’s about wielding that superpower that we all have in medicine to walk outside of our hospital and university doors to challenge the status quo and to make a difference in the world.
“My story is about turning a crisis into an opportunity. It’s about wielding that superpower that we all have in medicine to walk outside of our hospital and university doors to challenge the status quo and to make a difference in the world.”Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha
And I see it happening everywhere. Everyday I am inspired by folks in medicine bravely facing their present dangers – big and small – and turning them into opportunities. Opening their eyes to the inequities that are all around us – inequities that make our patients and communities sick – and standing up for justice, democracy, equality, and opportunity.
I think Dr. Lown would be proud. There are hundreds of people deserving of this award.
And we need hundreds more. Imagine a movement of doctors and nurses and all our partners in healthcare united for structural change.
As we celebrate Dr. Lown’s birthday and this humbling recognition, I hope it leaves us all inspired and committed to a tomorrow that is healthier, more equitable, and more just. And a tomorrow with more kids in more places celebrating more birthdays.