Meet 2017 Health Leader Fellow: Ashley Dehudy

A pediatrician advocating for safe drinking water, food free of contaminants, and green spaces

 

Complete transcript of Ashley's speech from Membership Meeting on March 15th, 2018.

So raised on the sandy shores of Lake Michigan, I spent my summers body surfing in the waves and winters zooming down the Hoffmaster dunes on cross-country skis. My childhood was full of nature, trails, and mud. I feel so fortunate to have grown up in such a brilliant environmental playground.  

As a child, I LOVED the cartoon Captain Planet – I don’t know if some of you have heard of that, but I was so inspired by the planeteers and their dedication to protecting the environment. And in 2nd grade, destruction of the rainforest in the animated movie Fern Gully was truly traumatic for me. I don’t know if any of you have seen Fern Gully but pretty devastating. I was so shocked by human’s lack of respect for the environment that in 4th grade, I actually asked my teacher for 10 minutes of class time so that I could educate my peers about environmental stewardship. I hounded them for leaving the faucet running on while they brushed their teeth. I told them stories about releasing balloons into the air and how potentially that might end up in the ocean and some wildlife might come into contact with it. One girl in my class grew hysterical over thinking that she had killed a baby seal by letting a balloon slip out of her hands once; I had to backtrack a little and calm her down. It’s okay. So that presentation wasn’t without drama, and it certainly wasn’t for the faint of heart.

As a teenager, I delved deeper into the connection between human health and the environment. I attended public hearings with my aunt and spoke out about the importance of keeping our great lakes clean. I remember how thrilling it was to feel like I had played a role, even if it was quite minor, in shutting down the construction of a waste pipeline that was slated to contaminate my beloved Lake Michigan.  

In college, I furthered my scientific knowledge as both a Chemistry and Biology major. I spent my summers in the mountains of rural West Virginia, working at National Youth Science Camp. At camp, I led hiking trips through the mighty Monongahela National Forest – reveling in the serenity and peace of the wild. As the Earth Sciences coordinator, I introduced campers to the beauty and wonder of the natural world – a far cry from the sedentary, digital media age that so many grow up immersed in. Over the course of the summer, my goal was to help young campers gain an appreciation for nature – and through that lens of appreciation, realize the fragility of our ecosystems and the importance of their protection. 

After college, I attended the University of Michigan School of Public Health and pursued a degree in Environmental Health, where I studied on how the health of an environment informs the health of a population. As a graduate student, I worked as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate course entitled “Environmental Chemicals and Disease”, which heightened my awareness to the threat of environmental toxicants.

I explored toxin magnification through our food chain as a research scholar at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I spent my NOAA summers fishing on Lake Michigan with grizzly 50-year-old men, listening to sea shanties and Bob Dylan all while gutting fish and preparing tissue samples – which would ultimately be used to inform the fish advisories. It was a glamorous job. Yet, all joking aside, my summers at NOAA taught me two important things:

  1. Keeping our food systems free of contamination is critical

  2. Effective communication of our scientific findings with the public is key

Early in my public health degree, I realized that I craved more human interaction. So I wanted to find a way to combine my love for learning about health and the environment – so I went to medical school.

As a medical student, I viewed most patient cases through my toxicology trained eye – did an environmental exposure lead to this cancer? How was this child exposed to lead? Why are these things happening and how can we stop them?

I brought this drive and curiosity to my Pediatrics Residency at U of M. I joined the advocacy group on trips to Lansing; I was amazed at how little some of our legislators knew about human health and science and it was shocking to me that the decisions they were making were directly affecting both.

Now residency is kind of an all-consuming, every man for himself kind of affair; so in June of 2016, when I graduated, I felt like a kid in a candy store – with significantly more free time to devote to pursuing things I loved – like environmental health.

So as luck would have it, around the time of graduation, my future boss, invited me to apply for the Health Leaders Fellowship. She was incredibly supportive and accommodating and allowed me to modify my clinic schedule in order to make fellowship events. I am forever grateful to Kelly Orringer for recognizing my interest and helping me pursue it!

So why the Health Leaders Fellowship? Well, I’m hoping it’s pretty obvious…but I’ve always been interested in findings connections between human health and the environment --- And currently, as a primary care pediatrician, my ultimate goal is to promote the health and wellness of children; however, this cannot occur without rich environmental surroundings. Children need safe drinking water, food free of contaminants, green spaces to exercise and explore, and air free of pollutants to breathe. Yet how does one successfully advocate for such things? I needed the Health Leaders Fellowship to show me the way! And over the course of the last year, I have gained skills that will serve me for years to come.

For my fellowship practicum, I recognized the unique opportunity I have to engage with a broad audience: from patients and families to fellow physicians to community members and politicians. Rather than focus on one topic, I embraced multiple opportunities to exercise the skill-set gained through the fellowship.

In June, I jumped at the chance to serve as a featured speaker at a community rally supporting electric school buses. I was asked to speak on the topic of pediatric pulmonary health and the direct impact of air pollution. It was an excellent opportunity to showcase my newly-honed public speaking skills – with supportive, smiling Ecology Center friends in the crowd cheering me on. I also felt more prepared to be interviewed (as well as be on camera), as just weeks prior, the fellowship had held a workshop on interview strategies.

After our Health Leaders Fellowship trip to Lansing, I felt inspired to return and continue discussions with legislators. I accompanied a group of pediatric residents (along with other faculty) to engage with legislators on the topic of childhood tobacco exposure and the importance of vaccines. Both totally separate topics but really important. Again, this was an incredible opportunity to gauge the legislators' knowledge on the topic – and fill in the gaps. I felt confident in my “elevator pitch” and made a clear “ask” – both skills I had gained through my fellowship workshops. I made such an impression on one legislator drafting a new vaccine bill, that he actually asked me to serve as a consultant.

I’ve also had opportunities to serve as a “science translator” to the lay public. In the last year, I have been interviewed about 4 times for articles focused on relaying scientific information to the general public, and I have to say that I felt 110% more confident with the interviews I had AFTER starting the Health Leaders fellowship. Workshops held through the fellowship taught me that preparation was key! Find out as much information on the goal of the interview beforehand; know the audience they are targeting! And ensure that your key points and “sounds bites” are accurate! I’d fallen victim to that prior to the Health Leaders Fellowship so this was very important.

And finally, I’ve continued to embrace the classic opportunity for education in the classroom. I’ve presented to the pediatric residents, medical students, and faculty on important environmental health topics such as lead poisoning, arsenic exposure through contaminated groundwater, and the risks posed by phthalates and flame retardants. After workshopping ideas and presentation skills during the HLF, I felt prepared with an informed viewpoint to offer other health professionals.

Without question, the Health Leaders Fellowship has made me a more confident and effective leader. I greatly value the friendships and connections I’ve made –and look forward to collaborating for years to come. The Health Leaders Fellowship has inspired me to take action, seek out opportunities, and work to make this world a healthier place for everyone and everything.

In the coming months, I will be moving with my husband and 5-month-old son to Denver, this is a shameless plug, currently, I’m seeking environmental health/advocacy work – so if you have any Denver connections, please pass them along!

In closing, I want to thank you – the members of the Ann Arbor Ecology Center – for giving me this invaluable opportunity! Thank you!

 

Ashley Dehudy received Bachelors of Science degrees in Chemistry and Biology, and attended the University of Michigan School of Public Health for her Masters degree in Environmental Health. She served as a researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration before attending medical school and pursuing a pediatric residency at the University of Michigan. After medical school, she served as a Health Leaders Fellow at the Ecology Center. She has been a practicing pediatrics specialist in Ann Arbor for 5 years.

Published on March 27, 2018