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story.lead_photo.caption An image taken from video shows University of Michigan-Flint lecturer Veronica Robinson drawing blood from Ketisa Looney’s 7-year-old son Zyontae during a lead-testing clinic held at Richfield Public School Academy in Flint, Mich., last month. - Photo by AP / MIKE HOUSEHOLDER

FLINT, Mich. -- 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 have their children tested.

The university's nursing students and faculty members, who draw and test blood and provide educational materials to parents, have been a huge help 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. About 150 representatives of the university volunteered at clinics in February and March, Robinson said.

Volunteering has shown that "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 problem 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 were tested for lead, state officials said.

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, Ketisa Looney, 29, 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 had been found in their blood. After 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 University of Michigan-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. "[The students] will remember this experience for the rest of their lives."

Information for this article was contributed by Jeff Karoub and Roger Schneider of the Associated Press.

SundayMonday Business on 04/18/2016

Print Headline: Flint student nurses help health workers hunt lead poisoning

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