Ten years ago, when Susan Pacheco sat down to help her children with their homework, she wasn’t thinking about changing the course of her life. She was thinking about getting them to finish their assignments, getting dinner ready, and getting through a long list of patients at her university’s clinic the next day.
As it happened, her oldest son, Gabriel, was learning about climate change in his science class. Dr. Pacheco, a pediatrician and professor in Houston, had never really thought about the issue. But there was this movie playing in theaters called An Inconvenient Truth getting people talking about the climate in a way she’d never seen before. So she packed up all three kids and her husband and they went to see it as a family.
What happened next will sound familiar to almost anyone who’s seen the film. Sitting in the dark theater after the credits rolled, she recalls being thunderstruck.
“I watched in awe and at the end of the documentary I just sat there in shock, the theater empty, the kids pulling on me to go,” she said. “It was like a storm in my mind. It wouldn’t rest and couldn’t calm down. I started reading and reading and applied to the training with Al Gore.”
The training she applied to was the second-ever Climate Reality Leadership Corps event led by former Vice President Al Gore and held in Nashville, Tennessee in 2006. Gore’s premise was simple. He’d been giving the slideshow presentation on climate change at the heart of An Inconvenient Truth for years. If a movie version could get millions talking about the issue while most politicians were simply ignoring it, why not train regular people eager to act to give the same presentation themselves and get their friends, family members, colleagues, and everyone else talking too?
The idea certainly appealed to Dr. Pacheco. But what she did with her training went far beyond the slideshow. After all, the more she learned about climate change, the more she saw what it meant, right there in her clinic’s waiting room every day. In the increasing numbers of anxious mothers’ faces, worried about their child’s asthma. In the hacking coughs of more and more kids fighting allergies. In the patients with heat intolerance forced to stay inside when the temperature climbs or wear cooling vests when venturing outdoors. And on and on.
With her medical and educational training, she knew she could teach her students how to treat these patients. And with her training as a Climate Reality Leader, she could talk to her peers throughout the medical community about what was happening. As an associate professor at the University of Texas Health Science Center, Dr. Pacheco specializes in pediatric asthma, allergies, and immunology. And since training in Nashville, she’s used that position to educate her students, the broader Houston community and medical professionals throughout the United States about the threats to human health associated with climate change.
How? For starters, Dr. Pacheco founded the Texas Coalition for Climate Change Awareness, a network of individuals from diverse backgrounds united around the common goal of educating themselves and their Texas communities about climate change in the state. She’s been working with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health to publish a policy statement and technical report on the importance of climate change in pediatric health. She’s published two op-eds in the Houston Chronicle and one in popular Hispanic paper La Opinion about the importance of the Clean Power Plan and EPA regulations for ozone. And perhaps most importantly, she’s working to educate doctors just beginning their careers by bringing the impacts of climate change on public health into the medical school curriculum, starting with her own students at the University of Texas McGovern Medical School. And hopefully soon at medical schools throughout the country.
If it sounds like she’s been not-so-quietly revolutionizing the health care field in Texas, it’s because she has. It’s not just her patients and peers who’ve noticed, either. In 2013, President Obama recognized Dr. Pacheco with the honor of being a White House Champion of Change for her work.
It hasn’t always been easy, though. In fact, when she first began her crusade, her own father was skeptical.
“He said to me: you’re a very passionate person, such a good pediatrician. This would be a waste to spend so much energy on climate change,” said Pacheco. “But I said my planet is sick. If I’m committed to the health of my patients, I have to care about the health of my planet.”
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