FLINT, Mich. (AP) — A nurse volunteering at the free lead-testing clinic at a Flint school sensed immediately that the boy was nervous about being poked in the finger. Veronica Robinson explained to 7-year-old Zyontae that it would feel like a mosquito bite.
Robinson, a University of Michigan-Flint nursing lecturer, worked alongside student Mat Rowden, who will complete his nursing degree in the fall. They helped with the event at Richfield Public School Academy, where Flint parents who were worried about the city's lead contamination could bring their children for testing.
The nursing students and faculty members from UM-Flint, who draw and test blood and provide educational materials to parents, have been a huge assist to the overworked Genesee County Health Department as it has tested tens of thousands of people for lead exposure since the scope of the problem became clear last year. Around 150 representatives of the university volunteered at clinics in February and March, according to Robinson.
Volunteering has illustrated "the need for health care, the need for nursing, goes way outside the hospital walls," said Rowden, 21.
The county health department's staff of about 100 has borne the brunt of the testing work, said director Mark Valacak, whose office is also responsible for about 50 programs.
"In one way or another everyone is involved in this, helping out in some way because of the impact it's had on the community," he said. "It's taken over."
About 8,000 children under age 6 have been potentially exposed to lead since the city, which was under state financial management, began drawing its drinking water from the Flint River in 2014 to save money. Officials failed to treat the corrosive water properly to prevent lead from leaching from old pipes into homes and businesses.
Elevated lead levels have been found in more than 200 children and 100 adults in Flint, a worry since lead contamination has been linked to learning disabilities and other problems. From Oct. 21 to March 25, about 20,000 people of all ages in Flint had been tested for lead, state officials say.
At Richfield, Zyontae wasn't buying the mosquito bite prediction. His yells of pain elicited laughter from his mom, who said the second-grader "was really acting out." Next, 29-year-old Ketisa Looney anxiously waited for the results for Zyontae and her two other children.
"I just came out to get them tested for lead, so I can make sure that they're free and clear of lead and nothing is wrong with them," said Looney, who works as a medical assistant.
When the results came back, the news wasn't good: Elevated levels of lead in their blood. Following an on-site meeting with medical professionals, Looney called the results "unsettling" and vowed to set up doctor visits and have her children undergo more testing.
Robinson, who has been appointed the nursing department's liaison to the county health department, works to match services from UM-Flint nursing and affiliate groups to the needs of the department — including organizing student volunteers for clinics, such as the one at Richfield.
"This experience is irreplaceable," Robinson said. "They (students) will remember this experience for the rest of their lives."
Associated Press reporters Jeff Karoub in Flint and Roger Schneider in Detroit contributed to this report.