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March 23, 2016

Rhonda Conner-Warren: You Can Trust that I Will

March 23, 2016

Rhonda Conner-Warren, who grew up in Flint, is an assistant professor of health programs in the MSU College of Nursing and a pediatric nurse practitioner.

My grandmother use to say, "You never miss the water until the well runs dry."  The phrases I often heard about the Flint water crisis and the donated water include:

  • "I don't know where that water is coming from.”
  • “I don't know what's in that water. Most of us don't want that water, we would rather buy our own.”
  • “You know people can be mean...and put stuff in that water!"

These statements from my elders caused me to have a moment of reflection. I was surprised to hear such comments knowing that the cost of water for individuals on a fixed income is expensive. Not to mention that it can be a burden for the elderly to carry heavy cases of water for daily use.

It was at this point that I realized as an African American healthcare provider that I had forgotten some of the atrocities that have occurred to African Americans, the poor and/or the disenfranchised. The Tuskegee syphilis experiment that withheld treatment, allowed for a treatable disease to run rampant and ravage the health of African American men and place their families at risk for poor health. "Tuskegee" (as my elders call it) was an experiment in the quest to understand the trajectory of this disease left untreated, even though penicillin was the standard treatment. These individuals trusted researchers that performed what we now consider unethical methods of research. From an academics perspective this is how I understand Tuskegee.

My elder’s generation learned about what happened in Tuskegee and to them it means that African Americans were used without any regard for individuals or the generations to come. The fact that research participants did not know what they were receiving is synonymous to how my elders see the Flint water crisis. They didn't know what was in the water and they didn't know if anyone was telling them the truth. Once the Flint water crisis became nationally known, donated water came from everywhere. Elders weren't sure if this was a well-meaning act or another means of mistreatment in the African American community.

For this generation Tuskegee has not been that long ago. It was at this point, that I could understand the memories of Tuskegee in relation to the water crisis. This is one reason why some of the elderly residents had an initial hesitancy to receive, accept and/ or use the donated water. Now that the water crisis is having a prolonged effect on their lives they are more willing to accept the water and more open to accept the help.

The overall issues impacting this community are trust, quality and safety. There is trust that elected government officials will do the ethical thing and take care of its constituents. There is trust that when you pay for services you will obtain quality services and safe drinking water. There is belief that you are taking care of your family in the best manner that you know how; aided by the support of community services that do no harm. There is also trust that the community has health care providers that will deliver quality care in their time of need.

As a pediatric nurse practitioner, I have to wonder about how outside health care providers may be seen in an effort to care and support health care providers and the community. The water crisis will be examined in the years to come to determine the toxic water effects on the health and health outcomes of individuals, the community and the land. How will health care providers from outside be welcomed in the days, weeks and years to come? How can we build trust to ensure optimal health care outcomes?

I don't have all the answers. Free health fairs that were held in the community are a start. Visible health care support from local universities and professional health care organizations utilizing an interdisciplinary approach is evident.

It is our job as health care providers to continue policing and monitoring the recent events, legislation and government funding to see that the community returns to a stable state. We are not just providers. We are the sons and daughters and family members in nearby communities who believe it is our responsibility to collect the water, distribute the water and collectively utilize our skills to give back to the Flint community.

The overall goal is to restore the trust and health of families in Flint. You can trust that I will volunteer, I will be there and I will bring water! I will bring my stethoscope and nursing expertise. I will bring my caring compassion to help the community that raised me up as a child. I will support my Flint family, friends and colleagues.