He had conducted a study predicting lead exposure by examining baby teeth in 1995 that linked extreme obesity to early exposures. A high school student asked me a simple question while riding in my car one night after an EPA meeting held in Picher. Did I think she might have been lead poisoned as a child?
She explained she had grown up in Quapaw, with a chat pile in her yard that she climbed, but also played in the sandbox her dad had built and filled with, not rough sand, but the softest sand ever, sand we know now was loaded with 10 times more lead than the regular chat sand he might have used. Dr. Kim suggested bringing her to Boston for a bone lead scan by an instrument I learned later he had a hand in developing, but later explained a baby tooth is like a "Time Capsule" and perhaps I could send one of her baby teeth. Knowing as an only child, her mother would have saved her baby teeth, I asked if he could analyze hers and other teeth from additional residents and... be our Tooth Fairy?
He didn’t laugh because he was a serious student, a medical doctor and a Korean activist in his home country, risking his life for freedom and justice and had never heard of the Tooth Fairy. But he did agree.It is because she asked that question, we got answers. It isn’t always quick to get answers, as we learned, but the answers did come. All of the teeth we sent had lead in them, but the girl’s, the girl who asked the question, could she have been lead poisoned?
She got her answer, but the Harvard School of Public Health found many more questions to ask about exposures to metals our babies and the health and behavioral consequences that may follow. Harvard sent their brightest to ask many more questions and seek answers for our community.
I think looking back on these years since meeting Kim on the phone and know that the years may change many things about us, but they have not changed my quest and yours for answers. Is our environment making us sick? Are there long term effects from our exposures? If those questions are answered with YES, then my next question is: Can we make our environment safer? And the next question is to you: will you help by asking your questions?
I met Kim a number of years later. He was working with the World Health Organization, based in Geneva, Switzerland and was back in Boston visiting his Harvard colleagues.
There was a lot I never knew about Dr. Kim. But I marched with him and 10,000 other people in the streets of Boston March 16, 2003, while millions of others were marching around the world for peace and no war with Iraq. He marched with other Koreans and I marched with Earl Hatley, wearing our Cherokee Volunteer jackets with Ghandi's message on the back: You must be the change you wish to see in the world. And 3 days later the Iraq War began.
It seems like war is edging closer to us again, all these years later, another old man’s war where young men and women do the dying.
There was a lot I didn’t know about Rokho Kim back then, and why laughing about the Tooth Fairy” I had asked him to be for us wouldn’t be funny to him then, and probably with his life experiences might still not bring a smile of recognition now.
When Rokho graduated from Harvard shortly after our phone conversation in 1995, he was awarded the Albert Switzer Humanitarian Award, For his "reverence for life" for his devotion to the Korean workers suffering from occupational diseases. He was a founding member of Korean Physicians for Humanitarian Actions in 1987. He was a leader in the Great Labor Uprising, the democratization of 1987 when millions filled the streets to end authoritarian rule. He is known for untiring activities promoting "health as a human right" and advocating for the workers and the urban poor since then in South Korea.
I am thinking they knew a lot more about his struggles and work in Korea under the authoritarian regime than I did, but what he has done since touches my heart as well.
We know climate is changing and the polar ice is melting at such a rate, there will be a northern passage open for shipping. The oceans are rising and Rokho’s latest work with the WHO has been in Figi and other Pacific Island nations most at risk from shrinking land base, infectious and non-transmittable diseases.
Ottawa County's island residents from Micronesia, may never be able to go back to their island homes due to climate change and its health impacts there. I stand with Dr. Kim and I invite you to do so as well for Health as a Human Right, as is peace and our right to ask the serious questions.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim