SPRING HILL — He discovered in his junior year of high school that he had the power to impact the community. But at just 15, he wasn’t quite old enough to fully grasp the ripple effect of one voice.
Nine years later, on April 3, Dinesh Hasan was one of three who received the USF College of Public Health’s Outstanding Alumni Award in the Sam Bell Auditorium on the USF campus. He was the first recipient of the award who does not hold a public health graduate degree.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” he said.
After graduating from Springstead High School in 2013, Hasan went on to USF, where he served three terms in the Student Government Senate. He was a research assistant at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute’s Tobacco Research and Intervention Program, known as TRIP. And he spearheaded the creation of TORN, Tampa Opioid Research Network, after graduating USF in 2017.
It was Hasan’s efforts to curb the opioid abuse problem that earned him the nomination. But it was the culmination of all his achievements that gave him the recognition.
Hasan isn’t taking the praise alone. He pointed out the mentors in his life who had distinct influences on the paths he chose to follow. Some occupied only a moment. Others are still profoundly present.
“I was lucky,” he said, believing he attended Springstead High when the educators were most prolific. Susan Duvall, Clifford Wagner, Kathleen Long, to mention only a few, were visionaries, he said.
And the International Baccalaureate Program at Springstead, only in its third year at the time, had a major impact on Hasan. “It encouraged us to think bigger so we could accomplish things in the community that were outside of ourselves,” he said.
The Autism Awareness Festival, Hasan’s IB community project, was his first taste of what could be accomplished through collaboration. Educators, fellow students and community partners stepped in to make the annual event a success. And Hasan’s vision continued for three years after he had left Springstead. He didn’t abandon the project. Instead he gradually let go of the reins.
TORN grew out of a $1,200 AmeriCorps grant Hasan was asked to oversee by the Crescent Community Clinic. That grant morphed into an initiative that sought change in a national epidemic. Opioid overdoses were climbing at outrageous rates. TORN worked with community partners to enact change through education, awareness and protocol changes.
TORN partnered with Oak Hill Hospital to present an education seminar on the opioid epidemic that outnumbered in attendance other events in the popular education series. Members presented their initiatives before the Hernando County Commission and organized interactive presentations in local high schools to deliver the message about the rise in opioid deaths due to overdoses.
“In your life, every day is a little puzzle piece,” he said. From opportunities that helped build the autism festival to the smoking cessation to TORN, things seemed to present at just the right time. “You don’t know how they’ll fit until, one day, they all seem connected.”
TORN has slowed down some but hasn’t stalled. Hasan, along with two original founders, are pursuing higher education. Hasan is in his first year of medical school. But they continue to participate in TORN activities when they can.
The mission is more important than ever. According to the National Institute of Health, “In 2017, there were 3,245 overdose deaths involving opioids in Florida — a rate of 16.3 deaths per 100,000 persons, compared to the national rate of 14.6 deaths per 100,000 persons.”
The greatest increase was seen in cases involving synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, from 162 deaths in 2012 to 2,126 in 2017.
Perhaps the award came at just the right time to breath new passion into the fight.
“This isn’t my award,” Hasan said. “It belongs to all of us.”
Everyone has the ability to ignite change, no matter how large or small the event may seem.
Elizabeth Pierce, director of health studies at Springstead, said it best, Hasan said. “‘Small little efforts make a big impact.’ ”
Hasan is enrolled in medical school and finishing up his master of legal studies degree from Washington University School of Law, in St. Louis. But he’s still working toward making a difference.
“If you have passion, you can do anything,” he said.