April 17, 2024

‘What I want you to know about climate change’: 9 stories

Healthy people need a healthy planet. Nine of our employees share how our changing environment affects them and their communities — and what they do to fight back.

Vi Nguyen, MD, picks up trash on the beach in San Diego while jogging. This workout, called “plogging,” helps clear not only the environment but also her mind.

Whether you realize it or not, climate change affects you.

It’s already changed the water you drink, the air you breathe, and the soil your vegetables are grown in.

It’s changed our weather patterns, leading to more extreme weather events such as stronger hurricanes and more devastating wildfires.

Every action counts when it comes to tackling climate change and its impacts on health.

Nine of our employees and physicians share how climate change has affected them — and some of the things they’re doing to combat it.

From farmworker to physician

Jesus Rodriguez, MD, Family Medicine, Fresno, California

Climate change affects everyone. And it impacts different communities differently.

One of my biggest interests is farmworker health. I come from a family of migrant farmworkers. I picked grapes and worked in almond fields from age 11 through high school to supplement my family’s income.

Research shows farmworkers are 35 times more likely to die from heat-related illnesses compared to workers from other industries.

Nigerian roots grew love of the Earth

Edidiong Ikpe-Ekpo, MD, MPH, Emergency Medicine, Atlanta

Are we poisoning our Earth?

I’m from Miami and my parents are from Nigeria. This contributed to my interest in our relationship with the environment.

In Miami, I was keenly aware of changes in the environment because I was always worried about hurricane season. In school, I was told that Miami may be under water in 20 years due to the impact of climate change.

In Nigerian culture, we’re very into things that grow from the earth and how they can be medicinal. That’s my heritage.

‘Sacred connection with our land’

Marcus Kāwika Iwane, MD, Internal Medicine, Kapōlei, Hawaii

Climate change is creating an unparalleled health care emergency.

Part of my passion is how the health of our “‘āina,” Hawaiian for “land,” dramatically impacts our health. The role we play as health care providers is extremely important.

I not only care for people — I also educate folks about how we impact the land we live on and how Native Hawaiians and Indigenous people have a sacred connection with our land that sustains us physically, mentally, and spiritually.

In 2023, I completed the Climate and Health Equity Fellowship through the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health. The fellowship program trains doctors of color to become climate leaders. The fellowship blossomed my passion to bring this knowledge into the exam room.

The country’s most polluted ZIP code

Lisa Romero, MPH, PA-C, Lead Community Health Consultant, Denver

I started my career as a physician assistant at a clinic in Commerce City, Colorado, that treated people who may not have health insurance. The city’s ZIP code — 80216 — has been called the most polluted ZIP code in the country.

The city is surrounded by 3 major highways, a lot of industry, and abandoned hazardous waste sites. That’s when I first witnessed patients trying to stay healthy in an environment not conducive to health.

One little girl had severe asthma and was on multiple medications. The family did what they could to improve the environment. They didn’t allow pets in the bedroom. They removed carpet. Despite this, she still had multiple hospitalizations because of where her family lived.

What do you do if you can’t afford to move?

‘One small change can make a difference’

Scott Itano, MD, Assistant Senior Medical Director, Primary Care, Seattle

You might think, how can I impact a tornado or a wildfire? I’m just one person.

But it’s the butterfly effect: One small change can make a difference, especially if it’s multiplied over millions of people. Each person’s one small change adds up.

‘Plogging’ — jogging plus picking up trash — a life-changer

Vi Thuy Nguyen, MD, Pediatrics, San Diego

I was burned out and didn’t realize it. I was really sad. Then, I learned about “plogging:” jogging while picking up trash.

Even though I lived in a house near the beach, I wasn’t a beach person. I never appreciated it. I started running out there and picking up trash early in the morning.

I felt better. I was no longer burned out by the 50th walk. My brain got better after picking up trash. It’s fun making an impact.

Reducing emissions and growing the economy

Seth Baruch, National Director of Energy and Utilities, Oakland, California

Climate change is the environmental issue of our generation and probably the next several generations.

I’m responsible for managing our on-site solar, which reduces the need to purchase electricity. Adding solar and batteries to build green microgrids also helps facilities that are in areas with a lot of wildfire-related power outages.

I’ve been in the environmental field my whole career. In the summer of 1988, I did a high school summer program in Boston. I lived in a dorm that had no air conditioning. It was the hottest summer on record.

It was so hot I couldn’t sleep. That’s the first time I remember people talking about global warming.

Do what you can

Amy Banulis, MD, Associate Medical Director, Women and Maternal Health, Falls Church, Virginia

The message to get out to people is: Do what you can do from where you are.

In 2020, we started a “green team” of physicians interested in making a difference in environmental sustainability. Our focus is mostly education, but we’re also trying to make systemic changes.

We eliminated the use of nonreusable plastic bottles for in-person events. We went from single-sided printing to double-sided in all facilities. And we advocated for more recycling and energy efficient processes.

‘Physicians need to take a stand’

Colin Cave, MD, Northwest Medical Director, External Affairs, Government Relations, and Community Health, Hillsboro, Oregon

In 2022, I got a text from my sister in Boulder, Colorado, that her house was devastated by a wildfire. This happened one day before it snowed. These are climate disasters.

It will become more personal for more people every year.

Learn more about how climate and health are connected, and why it matters.