Dr. Leana Wen Reflects On Her Public Health Push : Shots - Health News A year after Baltimore erupted in violence over the death of Freddie Gray, Dr. Leana Wen, the city's health commissioner, talks about progress and setbacks in dealing with issues the unrest exposed.
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Lesson Learned For Baltimore's Health Commissioner: 'I Like A Fight'

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Lesson Learned For Baltimore's Health Commissioner: 'I Like A Fight'

Lesson Learned For Baltimore's Health Commissioner: 'I Like A Fight'

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Last week, I was also in Sandtown for a final chat with someone we've been following since last year. Leana Wen is Baltimore's health commissioner, and after Gray's death, she emerged with a message of hope. She said public health could go a long way to addressing the city's problems of poverty, violence and drug addiction.

I met her this time outside the health department's brand new site for Safe Streets, a neighborhood-based violence prevention program. I asked Leana Wen about the progress she's made on a goal she first told me about almost a year ago - making Baltimore a model for the rest of the country.

LEANA WEN: We have gotten significant national recognition for some of our programs, including for our programs to respond to the opioid overdose epidemic. I do believe that because of the way that we focused on addiction as a disease, that that's changing the conversation in our city and actually is leading the way around the country - that people are beginning to see Baltimore not as "The Wire" and heroin overdose but actually as a model for recovery and resilience.

So I think we've done a lot for addiction and overdose, and that work has to continue. But now we are looking to see, what are the next areas going to be? And trauma is one of those areas.

CORNISH: Talk a little bit more about what you want that to be over the next year.

WEN: The unrest, paradoxically, opened the door for us to address trauma, which is a natural segue to talk about mental health and the bigger picture also of emotional well-being.

CORNISH: Because people were traumatized by the events that happened.

WEN: Or because people finally felt like they could talk about the trauma that they've experienced for so many years. And it's the trauma of police brutality. It's the trauma of discriminatory practices. It's the trauma even of being poor. People finally feel ready to talk about trauma, and we now want to convene a citywide group to address this issue.

CORNISH: To everyone else, they see a city with now the highest murder per capita rate. They still see a lot of vacant properties. They may not see "The Wire," right? You talked about that stereotype. But they see a place that is still struggling.

And when we talk to you, it is unrelenting optimism (laughter) that we hear. So what are the things that frustrate you?

WEN: You're right that our city is still struggling. I mean, I'm optimistic, but I'm not blind to what I see. And I'm not blind to the problems that exist. But I also realize that these problems have been in the making for decades. We're not going to be able to make a huge difference and a measurable difference overnight. But there are things that we can do along the way to demonstrate to our community that we hear you.

And this is how we're going to be making a difference. This is what we're doing in the meantime. I mean, we cannot solve the issue of addiction overnight, but we can reduce overdose deaths. And we have passed a good Samaritan law, and we are introducing programs where individuals caught with drugs are not going to be incarcerated but actually are going to be offered drug treatment.

So we're showing that things can be done, that we're taking small steps. But actually, our community get it. If we just came to our community and said, we're going to solve all of our crime problems overnight, they're not going to buy it. But if we say, look; we know the success of Safe Streets. It's been demonstrated at four sites across our city. Now we're going to open a fifth site in Sandtown. You can feel the energy and the optimism. Maybe that's why I'm so optimistic.

CORNISH: In the end, how is this different from what you thought it would be?

WEN: You mean the position, the job.

CORNISH: Yeah. We all have some preconceived idea of what we're going to be able to achieve or what it might be like, you know, to navigate a new place. And for you, was there a moment that surprised you or a moment this year that you really learned something from this experience?

WEN: The things that I've learned over the year have been a lot about myself and who I am as a manager, who I am with navigating complicated politics and situations but also what motivates me. And I've learned that I like a fight. I don't want to be in a situation where things are going well. I won't feel like I have anything do in that case. I mean, the ER - it's a patient who's dying in front of me. It's someone who is gravely ill, and my fight is the fight to save their life.

I see the same thing in Baltimore. There are so many problems. There are so many fights I could have every single day. It's the fight to get health on every agenda. It's the fight to change legislation. It's the fight to change public perception and mindsets. It's the fight to reduce stigma. It's the fight to introduce new programs in a time of severe physical constraints.

I mean, I like a fight, and I'm good at it. And that is what motivates me, and I'm learning now just how powerful that voice can be to say, I'm not here as a politician. I'm here as a doctor. I'm here as a scientist. I'm here to give voice to all these issues that we've seen that are unfair, if it's housing policies, policing policies, drug policies. And I'm seeing from a health perspective how these policies have destroyed our community. And this is what we're doing about it now.

CORNISH: Well, Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen, thank you so much for opening your office to us over these last few months, and best of luck in Baltimore.

WEN: Thank you. Come and visit us sometime.

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