May 21, 2015

San FrancisDr. Haarco Bay Area PSR board member Dr. Rohini Haar is a recent transplant to California, having moved from New York just last year. Already, though, she has plunged into leadership and research roles, serving not only on the SF Bay Area PSR board of directors, but also as a Fellow at the University of California at Berkeley Human Rights Center. Her days are also full as an Emergency Medicine physician at Kaiser Medical Center and Highland General Hospital in Oakland.

Her work at the Human Rights Center advances areas of research few consider, including her current focus, the health effects of crowd control weapons. While we see and sometimes participate in demonstrations and protests in our own country and across the world, we often are not aware of how dangerous the tools used by law enforcement and the military can be.

Dr. Haar writes more specifically of the lack of training provided to police and military that can increase these dangerous effects. Rubber bullets are intended to certainly cause pain, and yet, if fired from too close of a range, can be deadly. Similarly, tear gas is not supposed to cause permanent damage, and yet, it is often sprayed directly into the crowd, causing symptoms that can last for a significant period of time, including numbness and persistent pain. The canisters, too, are thrown not on the periphery as intended but instead into the heart of a protest, hitting people with potentially lethal results. Stun grenades are also increasingly becoming an issue in the United States. These little-researched weapons can cause deadly fires if thrown into houses during arrests.

These threats, however, bring more than physical injury. Dr. Haar pursues an agenda focused on the health effects of crowd control, but also one that is questioning the entire context in which these methods are used – controlling and suppressing democratic protest and the collective right to free speech. Rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades not only harm the individual, but all of our right to operate in our free society. This is only exacerbated by the increasing militarization of police forces throughout our communities.

Like PSR, Dr. Haar brings a comprehensive perspective on social change, combining research with the work of social change activists. Because of this, Dr. Haar is a natural fit for PSR. She sees that, more and more, a physician’s job deals with insurance forms, frustrations with the health care system, and conflicting conversations about appropriate care, while the systemic causes of health care crises, such as toxins, the proliferation of unhealthy foods, climate change and more aren’t more fully addressed.

Yet Dr. Haar and PSR remind us all of a larger role that all health care professionals can play, to highlight the efficacy of public health and the way in which physicians can serve as stewards of the nation. She points out that there is a constant shift in society, and constant process of change, but that collectively, we all have the means to shift it in the most vibrant way possible.