Vancouver doctor sees impact of climate change on patient health

Family physician Dr. Genoveva O’Neill stands in front of a sign that reads PeaceHealth Family Medicine of Southwest Washington in Vancouver. Here she cares for patients of all ages.

Donald Orr

Editor’s Note: OPB recently welcomed a cohort of early-career journalists as part of NPR’s Next Generation Radio. They spent time talking to locals about how climate change is directly affecting them and their communities. This story is part of this series.

Two years ago, during record wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, a longtime patient of Dr. Genoveva O’Neill hesitated to go to her doctor’s appointment as smoke from the forest fires filled the air. An elderly black woman with limited access to transportation, she already had respiratory complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. She was afraid to go out, so she canceled her date. But this delay in treatment worsened her condition and she ended up in hospital.

COPD is just one of many underlying conditions that can be exacerbated by wildfire smoke caused by climate change. O’Neill wants to make that connection for her patients in Vancouver: she sees a higher incidence of lung disease, cardiovascular disorders, heart attacks and strokes. And it’s not just physical ailments: mental illnesses like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder can occur. Washington and Oregon are already among the top states with the highest prevalence of mental illness.

O’Neill is already seeing the adverse effects of climate change in his patients, including patients from the Latinx community. Some are particularly vulnerable to the health consequences of scorching hot days and dangerous smoke from wildfires, due to long working days outdoors.

O'Neill examines a patient's hand while on a medical trip to Peru.  At his home in Vancouver, Washington, O'Neill treats patients of all ages and backgrounds.  She is already seeing the adverse effects of climate change within the Latinx community.  Some are particularly vulnerable to the health consequences of hotter days and dangerous smoke from wildfires, as many Latinx workers in agriculture and manufacturing do not have regular access to keep cool in the open air. interior.

O’Neill examines a patient’s hand while on a medical trip to Peru. At his home in Vancouver, Washington, O’Neill treats patients of all ages and backgrounds. She is already seeing the adverse effects of climate change within the Latinx community. Some are particularly vulnerable to the health consequences of hotter days and dangerous smoke from wildfires, as many Latinx workers in agriculture and manufacturing do not have regular access to keep cool in the open air. interior.

Ryan Morigeau

Because [Latinx community members] are more likely to work in industries that require outdoor work – agriculture, manufacturing, construction – we see many more health effects of climate change: hotter heat waves, longer droughts, wildfires said O’Neill.

According to a 2021 NPR/Columbia survey, workers of color are dying at a higher rate than white workers. Since 2010, one-third of heat-related deaths have occurred among Latinx farmworkers, even though they make up just 17% of the U.S. workforce.

O’Neill says she also sees more climate-related respiratory problems in infants.

“[We’re] seeing a lot more children developing things like asthma and breathing problems at a very early age – we’re talking three to six months, forcing them to be on long-term medication at rates we haven’t seen before,” O’ Neil says. Older children are also affected – a 12-year-old patient now needs an EpiPen after suffering a new, life-threatening allergic reaction.

O'Neill has a big tray of rubber ducks in his office for his younger patients.  She gives them toys when they get their injections.

O’Neill has a big tray of rubber ducks in his office for his younger patients. She gives them toys when they get their injections.

Donald Orr

It can get more complicated when the parents don’t speak English. As new symptoms emerge due to the smoke from the wildfires, O’Neill is spending more time to ensure caregivers and parents feel comfortable administering life-saving medication, such as an Epipen, to their children.

O’Neill strongly believes in the power of using the data and research already available to recognize the health impacts of climate change. She worries not only for her patients, but also for her own family.

O'Neill displays a Lego minifigure of a female doctor on her desk with family photos of her children in the background.  Her mother-in-law gave her figure as a gift after she graduated from medical school.

O’Neill displays a Lego minifigure of a female doctor on her desk with family photos of her children in the background. Her mother-in-law gave her figure as a gift after she graduated from medical school.

Donald Orr

“I worry about my children, not only the immediate effects on their breathing, but what kind of world are we delivering to them?” said O’Neill. “If we can make a change now, it will always make a difference to the world we are going to leave to our children.”

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