More than a year after the city he serves faced a water emergency Patrick Hawkins remains vigilant.
“Water is the one thing that can build or destroy you. Everything revolves around it,” says Hawkins, a prime mover in establishing health fairs and clinics for seniors in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis.
With the help of nurse practitioners, interdisciplinary health workers and volunteers from surrounding universities and clinics, Hawkins sets up events at churches, senior centers and schools to provide lead screening, blood pressure screening, nutritional counseling, confidential HIV testing and ongoing care.
“This is the right thing to do,” he says. “I treat everyone like a VIP, because everyone is someone’s brother, sister or mother. It isn’t just what we do, but how we do our work – with respect and compassion.”
In June, Hawkins, who has a doctorate in nursing, will receive statewide honors from the Michigan Association of Nurse Practitioners for being “a pillar of inspiration in the Flint water crisis.” The nomination salutes him “as an inspiration to us all – he represents a true example of excellence for nurse practitioners in the state of Michigan.”
Hawkins is a hero all year round for Sheryl Thompson, deputy director of field operations for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, who has been the liaison for the state response to Flint’s health issues.
“Patrick insisted we reach out to seniors for blood testing and medical concerns,” she says. “He insisted we call up the mobile food pantries to ensure people who showed up for tests went home with tuna fish, salmon, potatoes, cabbage and lettuce to mitigate the effects of lead and poor nutrition.”
When he learned a sizable number of lead-exposed Hispanic residents were terrified of seeking aid, worried a friend or relative could be deported, Hawkins set up clinics in community churches and recruited Spanish-speaking nurse volunteers to help perform outreach. Knowing they would have anonymity brought others to clinics and aided in the city’s ongoing recovery.
Hawkins didn’t stop at dispensing medicine. He made sure trucks from the local food bank came to Our Lady of Guadalupe and other predominantly Hispanic churches. His team hopes to teach gardening classes in the spring, so residents can cultivate nutritious foods in their own backyards.
Among his allies have been members of the United Way, the Valley Area Agency on Aging, Hamilton Health Clinic and an assortment of vendors. Together they’ve found seniors experiencing issues beyond what the community might have imagined.
For example, the caps on water bottles were hard to open with arthritic hands, so Hawkins found a source for plastic-openers. Others said they couldn’t put the water filters on faucets, so Hawkins worked with Thompson and the state to conduct home visits. One woman with extremely high lead levels not only didn’t know how to change a water filter, she never knew replacing it was required.
“Many people are at risk for hypertension and chronic kidney disease from high levels of lead,” Hawkins says. “We must be diligent in organizing clinics and health fairs.”
He has worked in kidney function or nephrology for 23 years, including Kidney and Hypertension Consultants in Flint Township. Hawkins also instructs nurses at Michigan State University.
Tragedy helped transform the husband and father of three grown children.
He was driving home in a snowstorm in 1999 after a long shift in the emergency room at a Detroit hospital. He was so tired his car drifted off the road on I-75 near Clarkston. A gravel hauler saw his car, a speck of color in a ditch. The driver stopped his truck, brought out a blanket for Hawkins and stayed with him, keeping him awake until an ambulance arrived. Then the driver disappeared.
“I knew then and now that each of us are our brother’s keeper. I must be mindful to establish trust with each person I meet,” he says.
But gaining confidence can be a daunting challenge.
“In dealing with the at-risk populations there needs to be a big buy-in. I’ve helped establish community partners people trust – their churches and community centers,” he says. “Then we bring in the county, state and federal organizations that can help people.”
Hawkins has helped forge valuable alliances, including the same Environmental Protection Agency crisis response team that helped secure the country from the Ebola virus.
He recently collaborated with the Hasselbring Senior Center and helped run a health fair for citizens of all ages at Northwestern High School May 18, with the help of Central Michigan University and Michigan State University’s allied health professionals.
“There’s no hidden agenda. We live here,” says Hawkins. “These are neighbors, friends, family and countrymen. They deserve our care.”
Editor’s Note: This piece originally appeared in the June 2017 print issue of TheHUB Flint