Since the onset of COVID-19, pulmonologist Dr. MeiLan Han along with other health care professionals have been working around the clock to save patients from respiratory failures. A newly-appointed first female Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care at the world-class University of Michigan Medicine, Dr. Han has written blogs, appeared as a medical advice expert on network news, wrote letters to legislators; and penned a practical and comprehensive book on lung health to educate both the public and policy makers on how we got here and what we need to do now. Here’s her inspiring personal and professional journey! READ ON!
(ANN ARBOR, MI, April 2, 2022) As a child MeiLan Han never really felt like she fit in. Her father immigrated to the US from Taiwan, and her mother grew up in Ohio. Her parents divorced when she was young and she had to become responsible early on. Living in rural Idaho, her name, appearance and almost everything about her marked her as different. She spent much of her childhood making sense of how the world perceived her and frequent questions from strangers about what she looked like and where she came from because of her Asian-Caucasian mixed race.
“I felt the need to excel in everything that I did. Not because of who I was, but because of who I wasn’t – ‘anything easily identifiable.’ I existed in no man’s land. I didn’t just have to be good, I had to be better to define who I was.”
Stability for self and family drove her to work hard and become self-reliant at a young age. She attended the University of Washington for medical school and had planned to return to Idaho to serve a rural community where well-trained doctors are needed. But her training took her to the University of Michigan Medicine where she became a pulmonary and critical care physician. There she was exposed not only to top-notch physicians, but also internationally renowned researchers. She found that combining her knowledge of patients with research methods, she might be able to help even more people. And so she stayed, focusing on care and research of patients with chronic lung diseases.
When the deadly SARS-CoV-2 pandemic took over the world, Dr. Han, a longtime lung advocate and national spokesperson for the American Lung Association, realized that almost no one understood how the lungs worked. They were confused about how mechanical ventilators supported patients with respiratory failure. People didn’t understand why so many patients were still dying. Then she had the opportunity to do an episode of Freakonomics Radio. She explained in layman’s terms to listeners how the lungs keep us alive and what happens when they quit working. It was at that moment that she received a fortuitous email from the editor at WW Norton Publishing who tuned in to her podcast. Both agreed the world needed a resource to process the information they were receiving.
Dr. MeiLan Han put herself on a strict writing schedule to finish Breathing Lessons: A Doctor’s Guide to Lung Health during the initial lockdown. In the book, she takes her readers deep into the inner workings of the lungs. She addresses important questions such as what smoking and vaping do to the lungs, what causes oxygen levels to drop, how ventilators support failing lungs. The author hopes to begin to change the national conversation. “We talk about heart health all the time. Why don’t we talk about lung health?” Sadly, long-term survival after a lung transplant is not as promising as it is after other organ transplants, like kidney or liver. Still, more than 80% of people survive at least one year after lung transplant. After three years, between 55% and 70% of those receiving lung transplants are alive
Because of COVID, wildfires, pollution, or genetic conditions people are interested in lung health more than ever. She outlines in her book not only how lungs work, but also how to protect them throughout our lives. (Learn why she feels we can’t afford to neglect lung health in her interview with The GOOP)
Yet as the pandemic drones on, MeiLan has become increasingly concerned that while research investment is being made into developing COVID specific vaccines and treatments, we are seeing little investment into understanding and treating lung failure. In her LA Times Op-Ed, she emphasized that COVID-19 alone wasn’t responsible for killing more than 5 million people. It instead exposed a dangerous failing in medical research and development. She further stressed that we will not be ready for the next pandemic until we make lung health a national priority and have a comprehensive plan in place. Because many who were hit hard and are still suffering come from marginalized and poor socioeconomic backgrounds, she explains we have to fight even harder for research dollars.
“COVID exposed the Achilles’ heel. Respiratory health is not just a concern for the few, it is now a concern for the many. Not only are we seeing significant lung damage with COVID-19, data suggests that subtle levels of pre-existing lung inflammation, largely undiagnosed, are contributing to excess COVID-19 infections and deaths. Protecting lung health must be important to everyone.”
Last year, in a blog, Han shared some of the other scientific lessons learned during the pandemic. Perhaps one of the most simple yet profound is the prior scientific belief that droplet transmission was the primary mode of viral transmission, making social distancing a primary focus of earlier public health measures. Now it is known SARS-CoV-2 is primarily transmitted through aerosols that can hang in the air much longer, leading to a shift in public health messaging toward masks and improved ventilation systems. Because of these data, she believes mask-wearing for certain parts of the population including healthcare workers may be a part of our ‘new normal.’
On Jan1, 2022, the inspiring Professor of Medicine also became the Chief of the Division of Pulmonary & Critical Care Medicine at the University of Michigan making her the first female in that position since the division’s inception in 1928.
“This certainly wasn’t my primary ambition. Rather I’ve been led by intellectual curiosity and the drive to find solutions for my patients with pulmonary diseases. But the farther I’ve come, the more budding pulmonologists I’ve had the chance to train. To be able to contribute to the development of a large group of pulmonary physicians and scientists is now one of the most enjoyable aspects of my work.”
At the University of Michigan, MeiLan’s specialties include COPD and women’s respiratory health. She is also the Director of the Michigan Airways Program, which aims to improve the lives of patients with airways disease. On a national and international level, she also serves on the Board of Directors for the COPD Foundation, the scientific advisory committee for the American Lung Association and the GOLD committee that writes international guidelines for COPD.
She is an outspoken crusader for not only patients but also hospital staff and doctors who are experiencing burnout. Nearly 360 doctors commit suicide each year – that’s nearly one a day! But during the pandemic things are far worse. She lobbies legislators, pens blogs, and offers medical and lung health care advice on television and in periodicals regularly.
Despite career successes, many women believe that they can’t have it all when trying to balance ‘professional commitments’ and ‘family.’ MeiLan is one of them. Leading a large group of physicians and being a mother to an active 8-year-old requires a lot of juggling. “It’s tough to balance everything, and I certainly am no superhuman. At the moment, my son and family are a huge priority, then my patients and faculty.” She doesn’t consider herself successful in real terms because a lot of work remains to change policies, increase funding for lung health, and so Americans hit with COVID may enjoy a quality of life .
“Success for me is all about being able to win hearts and minds, influencing patients to lead a healthy life, helping policymakers understand how their decisions impact public health, and, most importantly, being able to bring change in the world for the better. We still have a long way to go…”
(Manvi Pant is a staff writer for Saris to Suits ® Omniscient Perspective. After a corporate career spanning eight years, she has moved to academics and also runs her storytelling platform Real Life Heroes. Founded by former network news anchor Patti Tripathi, the Atlanta-based Saris to Suits ® focuses on building awareness to break down the barriers that constrain the advancement of women and girls. We aim to advance women’s empowerment, education, gender inclusivity, equality and social justice. http://www.