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Flint Legionnaires’ Disease Survivors Speak Out: ‘Every Day Is a Challenge’

Auditi Guha

“It hurts. It really does hurt that you have people with that much power not even seem like they care."

Jassmine McBride’s mother calls her “a miracle.”

The 30-year-old woman is among the 90 or so residents of Flint, Michigan, who survived Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially deadly lung infection. And while the news focused mainly on the ones who died, families like the McBrides now feel lost and forgotten.

Forgotten is how many residents said they feel four-and-a-half years after Flint’s lead-tainted water crisis began, and six months after Republican Gov. Rick Snyder declared the water safe and stopped distributing free bottled water to people who have no trust in their government.

“It hurts. It really does hurt that you have people with that much power not even seem like they care,” Jassmine said last week about politicians who claim all is fine in Flint. “You can still smell the water. It’s still affecting people. We still bathe or brush our teeth with bottled water. It’s just hard, it really is, to have none of those people come around and say they are sorry.”

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She sat in a chair on the porch, a blanket tucked around her. She’s tired all the time. She has lesions on her face and neck, tubes coming out of her, and she can barely walk without crutches. She wonders if she will ever lead a normal life.

How Did It Happen?

Jassmine was 26 when she was diagnosed in August 2014 with Legionnaires’ disease, a potentially fatal type of pneumonia. This was at the height of the water crisis in the “Vehicle City,” once the prosperous birthplace of General Motors, but which has struggled with poverty and pollution since GM left. The Snyder administration hushed up the public health crisis for months while lead-tainted water slowly poisoned the city’s 100,000 residents, who are largely poor or Black.

The city was under state control in April 2014 when Snyder’s administration switched the water source from Lake Huron to the highly corrosive Flint River, while failing to add anti-corrosive agents to treat the water in order to save about $2 million a year. Poor corrosion control allowed lead to leach from older pipes, and a lack of chlorine disinfectant and high levels of iron increased the likelihood of legionella bacteria growth, Michigan Radio reported.

In 2014 and 2015, Genesee County saw the largest outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in at least a decade. After reports of high lead levels and public outcry, Snyder switched Flint’s water source back to Detroit’s in October 2015.

Jassmine has diabetes and went for a checkup at the McLaren Flint Hospital, where they found her iron and oxygen levels low. They admitted her in August 2014, but her health rapidly deteriorated.

“I was in Lansing when they called me from the hospital and said, ‘We don’t have time, do we have permission to resuscitate her?’” her mother Jacqueline McBride, 49, told reporters last week in Flint.

Jassmine almost died. She said she doesn’t recall much from that time, “being on life support and all,” but said she was shocked when she regained consciousness in October and found she had been hospitalized for more than two months. “I never even heard of Legionnaires.’ ‘What’s that?’ I said.”

Legionella and Denials

Legionnaires’ disease is a severe form of pneumonia caused by a waterborne bacteria called Legionella pneumophila. The bacteria exists naturally in freshwater systems but becomes a problem when it is can grow and multiply. Warm water with depleted levels of disinfectant foster that growth, and people get sick by inhaling mist or vapor from contaminated water systems. That’s how the McBrides thinks Jassmine contracted it.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services has repeatedly blamed McLaren, saying that most of the reported legionella cases originated in the hospital. Officials from the hospital group slammed that report, calling it erroneous and an effort by the state to shift blame for the water crisis, Michigan Radio reported.

The disease is on the rise in the United States, and the Flint outbreak is the third largest outbreak in U.S. history, with at least 87 people infected and 12 dead over two years, Science magazine reported.

A February report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences estimated that 80 percent of Legionnaires’ cases during the outbreak can be attributed to the change in Flint’s water supply—a claim that the state health department has disputed.

It’s still unclear how many people actually contracted Legionnaires’ disease at the time, since the symptoms mirror pneumonia. Reports indicate a dramatic increase in pneumonia deaths in Genesee County since the 2014 switch. A recent Frontline investigation suggests that some of the 119 deaths from pneumonia during the time the city relied on Flint River water should likely be attributed to Legionnaires’ disease.

Michael Moore’s documentary on the water crisis claims county officials were told to falsify blood lead test results, and records indicates the county failed to connect 85 percent of lead-poisoned children with follow-up care, according to MLive.

“A Scary Transition”

Once a happy, active woman who loved shrimp and potatoes, sang in church, and enjoyed dancing, Jassmine became bedridden. She spent two months sedated in the intensive care unit as doctors tried to control the infection. She started physical therapy in October 2014 and was in-and-out of the hospital until December, learning how to do basic things like eat and walk with tubes coming out of her.

“You don’t really think about those things until you lose them. It was a real challenge to learn to breathe on your own and do dialysis, which wipes you out,” Jassmine said. “Even with the breathing machine, I felt I couldn’t breathe. I was afraid to lie down. It was a scary transition.”

She used to drink gallons of water a day before she fell ill. Because of water retention and bloating issues, she was forced to cut down to two bottles a day. Dialysis gets rid of excess fluid and waste in the body, but it is nowhere near as effective as healthy kidneys. In the later stages of chronic kidney disease, normal amounts of fluid can build up in the body and become dangerous. Going over the recommended fluid allowance can cause swelling, increase blood pressure, and make breathing difficult.

Jassmine broke her ankle and said it never healed right; it still hurts to walk. “Every day is a challenge,” she said.

Four years later, every day is still a challenge for the mother and daughter who live in a small yellow house in Flint’s blighted north side, which is dotted with overgrown yards and abandoned homes. Like countless others in Flint, they struggle to pay their high water bills and escalating medical bills.

Jassmine uses crutches but struggles to walk more than a few yards, and uses an oxygen tank because her lungs were permanently damaged. She requires dialysis three times a week, a process that she described as long and exhausting. She cannot attend college but is trying to take online classes.

Her mother said she never gave up hope, not even when doctors warned that Jassmine might not make it. She know her daughter was lucky to come home—after all, she said, 12 of the Flint residents who contracted Legionnaires’ did not.

Where Is Justice?

More than a dozen state and city officials face criminal charges for failing to alert the public about the risks of legionella until well after the outbreak had subsided.

Among them is Nick Lyon, the former Michigan health director, who is being tried for involuntary manslaughter in connection with the Legionnaires’ deaths and denies criminal wrongdoing.

To add insult to injury, the state’s top medical officer, Dr. Eden Wells, was just awarded the highest individual honor given by the local public health community in Michigan despite facing involuntary manslaughter and other charges related to the Flint water crisis.

The state continues to fail Flint residents, many of whom say they have no trust in government. Snyder not only stopped the free bottled water distribution in April but allowed Swiss conglomerate Nestlé to nearly double the amount of water it pumps from a spring in the north of the state to 400 gallons per minute for a paltry annual fee of $200. Nestlé is continuing to provide free bottles of water to Flint residents until December.

Meanwhile, the Genesee County Health Department now has the authority to investigate and address the legionella cases in Flint. Pamela Pugh, who has been serving in the new position of chief public health advisor for the past two years, told Rewire.News that it has been a challenge; she has been barred from attending some state meetings.

“Mayor [Karen] Weaver and the administration recognizes that our residents still live with the devastation of what has happened and fear of the unknown impacts. There is no safe level of lead to consume and very little information on the impact of the biological pathogens they were exposed to, so those that were exposed, are left wondering what this means for themselves and their children,” she said in an email.

The mayor agrees there is work to be done, although the quality of water has improved since she declared a public health emergency in December 2015. The city continues to replace affected lead pipes, and Weaver continues to call for bottled water availability and properly installed filters in Flint homes.

“Mayor Weaver maintains that Flint residents did not cause the man-made water disaster, therefore adequate resources should continue being provided until the problem is fixed and all the lead and galvanized pipes have been replaced and interior plumbing and fixtures are replaced,” Pugh said.

The city is continuing to work to address Flint’s decades-old water concerns and improve communications with residents, she added.

The U.S. Conference of Mayors meets in Flint on Friday to discuss ways to combat the water crisis, according to news reports. Tech billionaire Elon Musk has announced a $480,350 donation to pay for ultraviolet filtration systems in all 12 Flint school buildings and the district’s administration building by January 2019.

Meanwhile, the McBrides remain strong in their faith and are determined to beat the odds. They don’t wish anyone ill, but they are amazed that no one from Flint or the state has ever reached out to help them. (When asked why the McBride family has not heard from the city, Pugh said it’s “highly likely” that the city has not been given access to the McBrides’ information. Snyder’s office did not respond for comment.) What’s hardest for Jassmine are the continued denials of wrongdoing on TV, even as 15 city and state officials face trials.

Snyder’s term is up this year, and Flint residents said they don’t have much faith in the two longtime state government officials vying for his seat: Democrat Gretchen Whitmer of Lansing and the Republican state Attorney General Bill Schuette.

Both have talked about the importance of providing safe water to Flint, but residents there are fed up with promises and lies. Flint residents also worry about new water problems they have heard about, including PFAS contamination in the Flint River, which was discovered before 2014 but covered up by the state, as MLive reported.

Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are a group of manmade chemicals that don’t break down and can lead to adverse human health effects, according to the EPA.

But the Flint water crisis continues to be a talking point for politicians vying for power. Whitmer says she has a plan to invest $3 billion in a Rebuild Michigan Bank to expedite the replacement of lead pipes across the state, and she wants to restore bottled water for Flint residents. Schuette did not respond to emails seeking comment. Some residents claim he was among the officials who ignored the water crisis and has a history of ignoring complaints from the people of Flint.

Asked whether they plan to vote in November, the McBrides responded with an emphatic “Yes.”

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