AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today and tomorrow, we're spending some time in Baltimore, where some neighborhoods are still struggling to recover from the riots that broke out following the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police.
In the aftermath, we spent many hours trying to understand the raw anger on display. We talked about police brutality, economic disparities and housing segregation in Baltimore, and we interviewed many people. One of those people was Leana Wen.
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CORNISH: Dr. Wen, welcome to the program.
LEANA WEN: Thank you.
CORNISH: When I spoke with her in May, she was only about four months into the job as Baltimore's health commissioner. During the riots, Wen stepped up. The Health Department was pressed into round-the-clock service making sure hospitals were protected and staffed and that patients got their prescriptions. But after things settled down, Dr. Wen seized the moment. She told me and many others that there's an even bigger role for public health to play - treating the poverty, violence and drug addiction that have traumatized the city for years.
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WEN: We have to make the case that actually, everything comes back to health. My hope is that we can really make Baltimore into a model for the rest of the country to follow when it comes to treating the core roots of our problems.
CORNISH: But is that true? Does everything actually come back to health? If so, can a health commissioner really make a difference? How do you even get something going in city government? Well, starting today, we're going to try to answer some of those questions. We're following Leana Wen and her team over the coming months as they try to do just that - make a difference. But first, she's had to win over hearts and minds in the health department, and that means spicing up the annual staff meeting. And her supervisors play along.
PATRICK CHAULK: Good morning. I'm Patrick Chaulk, the assistant commissioner for HIV/STD Services.
CHAULK: We're also known as the bureau of bugs, drugs and sex.
CORNISH: A little humor, a little Zumba - two staffers, fitness instructors in their workout gear are helping the new boss with her moves, not that she needs the help. Commissioner Wen used to be a competitive ballroom dancer.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: You rock, Dr. Wen. You rock.
CORNISH: Leana Wen is 32 and an emergency physician. In her formal green shift dress and elegant jewelry, you can tell she feels a little silly.
WEN: Was it ridiculous, or was it OK?
CORNISH: Since January, she's been on a campaign to connect with this staff and with the city of Baltimore, her new home. She was born in Shanghai and came to the U.S. at the age of 8. Her parents, Chinese dissidents, sought political asylum and first landed in Logan, Utah. But a couple years later, they moved to a place a bit more like Baltimore. And that's the story she shared at this staff meeting.
WEN: Now, you may not know from looking at me now, but I grew up in the inner-city in Los Angeles. I grew up in Compton and in East LA.
CORNISH: Heads turn in the room - a silent huh.
WEN: I saw what happens when my classmates - for example, my friends were the victims of gun violence, but many of them were also the perpetrators of violence as well.
CORNISH: Wen tells her staff she dreamed of becoming a doctor. But when that dream came true, she was confronted by a sad reality. In the ER, you can resuscitate victims of gun violence and overdose, but you can't prevent them from returning over and over. You don't get to the root of the problem.
WEN: It is not a satisfying cycle for us to be in when we're treating problems at the very end of those problems rather than preventing them from happening in the first place.
OLIVIA FARROW: She wants to get out there and make things happen.
CORNISH: That's Olivia Farrow, deputy commissioner. Farrow was one of the movers and shakers Dr. Wen brought back from previous administrations to help her navigate the city's rough-and-tumble politics. Farrow laughs, remembering how before Dr. Wen even started the job, she was already holding meetings.
FARROW: Somebody was telling me a joke. It's not Wen; it's Went. (Laughter). I mean, it's - she's already ahead of you and gone, you know, trying to make the fix.
CORNISH: Dawn O'Neill, another deputy chimes in. She remembers her first meeting with Leana Wen to discuss the job. It was all of 30 minutes on a Friday night.
O'NEILL: She called me the next day and said, I've got a spot for you. Please come on my team and that you have till tomorrow because the press release - I'm working on the press release right now. I said, tomorrow (laughter), like, seriously?
FARROW: She doesn't play around. I mean, she makes decisions and, you know, wants to see things happen.
CORNISH: Dr. Wen leans heavily on these two, trusting they'll stop her from making rookie mistakes. But Farrow thinks Wen's lack of political experience might be a plus.
FARROW: You know, there's something about people who come from the outside, haven't been in government, just their ability to kind of say, hey, let's think about things differently. A lot of times, that can rub people the wrong way. And some people survive that, and some people don't. And she pushes, and it's good.
CORNISH: As hard as their push, the person Leana Wen pushes the most is probably Leana Wen. She's spent the last few months on a crash course in all things Baltimore.
WEN: Woah. Is that Gregory?
CORNISH: On any given day, you might find her celebrating a maternal infant health program...
WEN: He looks like a very happy camper.
CORNISH: ...Participating in a panel discussion on health disparities or stopping by yet another health fair.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm glad you could make it.
WEN: Thank you for having me here.
CORNISH: Like this one thrown by a black fraternity.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Omega Psi Phi, Pi Omega chapter.
WEN: All right.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The dignitaries that are here thus far...
CORNISH: There are endless hands to shake, hugs to give and names to learn.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And then we have our grand basileus.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Basileus.
WEN: Basileus, basileus.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah - same as president. And...
WEN: Man, that is definitely not something that I would've necessarily known.
WEN: Grand basileus.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The grand basileus.
CORNISH: Stop by stop, meeting by meeting, Leana Wen is taking on the unknowns, learning the ropes, trying to figure out what's in her purview. She's already made curbing the heroin epidemic and adding mental health services top priority. But she's asking her staff to think bigger.
WEN: Is there anything else in public health law that you guys think that are, like, interesting, relevant?
CORNISH: She turns to Gabe Auteri, her special assistant. He's just out of grad school.
WEN: You just took a class in it, Gabe. What was interesting?
GABE AUTERI: Like, what do you want, like, a list of ideas?
WEN: Well, just what did you encounter in that class that you're like, oh, if only we could do that in Baltimore, that would be pretty cool.
AUTERI: Mandated mental health screening for all students entering X grade...
AUTERI: ...Like immunizations. That's what I wrote my paper on - got an A.
CORNISH: Can they even do that?
WEN: Is that state, or is that - that's got to be state.
AUTERI: Local - no.
WEN: We can't do it, though. We don't legislate schools, right? Or do we?
CORNISH: She tells him to send around his paper and look into it.
WEN: I love these big ideas. Let's do it, right? Why not? This is our chance now. You know, who knows how much time we have here. We just don't know, and so I don't want to say, like, oh, let's wait until next year, the next year, the next year. Who knows? This is our chance, so this is our year. All right.
CORNISH: For all of her optimism, Leana Wen is not blind to the realities just outside her door. This summer, Baltimore has seen its worst homicide rate in four decades. And brewing just under the surface is frustration. And no matter what happens, no matter how many cameras turn their lenses on Baltimore, no matter how many leaders speak out, nothing seems to change. This is her challenge, and this is what we're going to explore over the coming months.
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CORNISH: Tomorrow, what happens when a flagship violence-prevention program hits a bump?
WEN: Now, this was disappointing and certainly not the news that we were hoping for.
CORNISH: Leana Wen faces a crisis. That story tomorrow.
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