(Editor's note: Kyle Tianshi is a senior at The Cambridge School. Kyle was a recipient of Scholarship for API Student Internship 2023 for API Student Journalism Internship. This is one of the three articles he wrote for the program)
More than two hundred medical professionals, researchers, activists, and families gathered at the UC San Diego School of Medicine on Aug. 12 for the inaugural H3SD: San Diego’s Heat and Human Health Summit. As event organizer, pediatrician, and climate activist Dr. Vi Thuy Nguyen peered into the crowd and recognized dozens of people she’d contacted over the past five months, she knew the event was going to be a success.
From Mondays to Fridays, Dr. Nguyen is a pediatrician at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. Outside of work, you’ll find her wearing one of several hats: co-chair of the Public Health Advisory Council of Climate Actions Campaign, co-founder of the San Diego Pediatricians for Clean Air, and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) California State Government Affairs Expert Committee on Environmental Health and Climate Change. She admits that those titles are a bit of a mouthful.
With over fifteen years of experience, Nguyen is great at being a pediatrician, and she also gets to see the direct, tangible benefits of her work. Meeting patients face-to-face, diagnosing illnesses, prescribing treatment plans, and helping kids recover is the stuff that keeps Dr. Nguyen fulfilled, day after day.
That’s not to say that the job isn’t challenging.
“Being a pediatrician isn’t all fun,” she says. “Runny noses, ear infections, pneumonia, asthma…We also deal with child abuse. When things go bad, kids get hurt.”
In 2018, during the first of Greta Thunberg’s climate strikes, Nguyen began “plogging” (a portmanteau of the Swedish words for jogging and picking up litter) to alleviate her climate anxiety. It worked––but then she began wondering how much her trash-collecting efforts were really helping.
“And then you kind of have this ‘aha’ moment,” she said. “Like, it’s really bad… and you kind of realize the climate crisis. Like truly realize it.”
She took a Climate Reality Leadership class with former US Vice President Al Gore, where she learned about taking personal action to combat climate change. As a doctor, Nguyen realized that she’d be able to make the biggest impact if she brought her new awareness back to medicine. By the time she reached out to the American Academy of Pediatrics to voice her concerns about the environment, dozens of other doctors had mobilized as well. Together, they formed the AAP National Climate Advocate Program, which now has 52 branches nationwide.
Working between so many climate pediatrician groups, Dr. Nguyen noticed that San Diego lacked a heat officer, an official responsible for protecting citizens from extreme heat.
“We can’t wait for someone else from Boston or from San Francisco to make changes. We have to do it ourselves,” she said.
The idea of the Heat and Human Health Summit was born. Over the next five months, Dr. Nguyen and her group of pediatricians began sending out emails. She called each member of her team a “super-connector,” because they each knew so many people. The responses rolled in, with dozens of researchers eager to present.
On the day of the Summit, hundreds of people showed up. Among the attendees were Dr. Alan Shahtaji, physician for the US Women’s World Cup soccer team, who flew from New Zealand the prior day, Adam Aron, recently published author of The Climate Crisis, and Mitzi Mayer, an artist shooting a film about plastic contamination.
“After you get over your climate grief, there is hope in action,” Dr. Nguyen said during one of her remarks. Presentations in the auditorium included an exhibition by the County of San Diego about their excessive heat plan, while breakout sessions took place in adjoining classrooms. Booths stationed at the front of the building spoke about policies for decarbonization and passed out Our House is on Fire, a book about Greta Thunberg for younger attendees.
“Once you see climate change, you can’t unsee it,” Nguyen said to close out the Summit. “But when you look around and see all the help, you also can't unsee the beauty.”
Though her existential climate dread still creeps up from time to time, Dr. Nguyen has hope. She urges everyone to use their voice, use their vote, and connect with climate organizations that are right for them. Hers is the pediatrician group. Fittingly, she thinks of the planet as their biggest patient.
“This is the greatest adventure that humanity is going to get through,” she said.
The climate crisis is a movie where she can’t predict the ending. But with the success of her summit, Dr. Nguyen is optimistic it’ll be a happy one.