Leana Wen never had her sights set on public office. She was happy working as an emergency room doctor and lecturer in medicine in Washington, D.C. And when the position of Baltimore health commissioner came open, in 2014, she was only 31 years old. But a widely respected former commissioner urged her to apply for his old job, and she decided to go for it.
There was no way Wen could have imagined what she was about to get into. Just a couple of months after she moved into her new post in Baltimore, riots erupted in the city following the death of Freddie Gray, an unarmed black man, in police custody. Wen leveraged the unrest to start a conversation about police brutality and poverty as public health issues. “If we care about our children and their education,” she said, “we should also care about lead poisoning in their homes. If we care about public safety, we should also address mental health and substance addiction and the huge unmet need there.”
Once Baltimore calmed down, Wen began to use her platform to introduce and bolster a wide array of new public health programs, focusing on poverty and violence. One of them, Safe Streets, uses reformed ex-felons to intervene in potentially violent situations. Vision for Baltimore gives eyeglasses to school-age children who otherwise couldn’t afford them. The city’s needle exchange program is now one of the most extensive in the country.
As the opioid crisis began to decimate communities across the country, Wen gained national recognition by issuing a standing order to allow any Baltimore resident to get naloxone -- the lifesaving antidote to an overdose -- at any local pharmacy. This effort caught the eye of the Obama White House, and she was invited there to speak publicly about the epidemic alongside the president. “She used her voice both as an emergency room physician and health commissioner to challenge the medical community,” says Michael Botticelli, who served as drug czar in the Obama administration.
Wen’s relationship with the Trump administration hasn’t been as warm -- she has publicly criticized the president for cuts to family planning programs and for waiting too long to declare the opioid epidemic a state of emergency. But her peers insist that even without a close federal partner, Wen is now too far into the role of national advocate to return to anything less visible. “She will continue to bring innovative programs at the local level,” Botticelli predicts, “but also be the voice of reason on the national level.”
Born in Shanghai to a family of Chinese dissidents, Wen emigrated to the U.S. when she was eight and grew up in Compton, south of downtown Los Angeles. She graduated college at 18 -- summa cum laude from California State University -- and then went on to become a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, held a clinical fellowship at Harvard, and wrote a book called When Doctors Don’t Listen.
Wen says growing up in a low-income, heavily immigrant neighborhood taught her how crucial physical health is to the overall well-being of any community. As a child, she watched a neighbor die during an asthma attack because she didn’t have an inhaler and her undocumented family was afraid to call 911. “The opposite of poverty,” Wen likes to say, “really is health.”
-- By Mattie Quinn
See the rest of the 2017 public officials here.