Baltimore's Leana Wen: A Doctor For The City : Shots - Health News The 33-year-old health commissioner in Baltimore says that heading the city's health department is the fastest paced job she's had. Dr. Wen is an emergency physician by training.

Baltimore's Leana Wen: A Doctor For The City

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For the next few minutes, I'm going to take you behind the scenes on a series we began last summer. We've been in Baltimore examining some of the city's worst problems - drug addiction and violence. And we've been doing it through the eyes of Health Commissioner Leana Wen.

LEANA WEN: Good morning, everyone.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Good morning.

WEN: Good morning.

CORNISH: Her energy and optimism caught our attention after the Freddie Gray riots when she stood up and said, look; these problems - we can do something about them.

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WEN: We have to make the case that, actually, everything comes back to health.

CORNISH: Now, in the months since, we've reported on some of her initiatives - stopping overdoses, reducing violence, getting drug treatment on demand. Today, we're focusing on Leana Wen herself. My producer Andrea - she has been spending lots of time in Baltimore. She's here to talk more. Hey there, Andrea.

ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: All right. So when he first met Leana Wen, she'd only been on the job for a few months. You know, she was this newcomer to government, and there was some skepticism about whether she could make good on all these promises. And you've seen her in all sorts of moments - right? - not just the stories we've been hearing on air. Help us understand how she's dealt with her first year.

HSU: Well, Audie, I think she's someone who wants to be a game changer, and she's throwing everything she has at this job. You know, in her previous life as an emergency room doctor, she dealt with life-or-death issues all the time, but her patients were those people who came into the ER. Now she thinks of herself as the doctor for the whole city. She talks about Baltimore's residents as patients, and that makes those life-or-death issues all the more pressing.

WEN: It's so real for me every day because if everyone that I talked to knows someone who has died of overdose, that is literally our family and our friends who are dying from this preventable issue that I have the power to try to prevent in some way. And when we don't do something about it or when we don't do enough, then we see the consequence of somebody dying. I mean, that is really immediate.

HSU: Now, that's a huge responsibility she's put on herself, but it's also one she savors because unlike in the past, she's now in a position to do something. And that's not how she felt in the ER.

WEN: One of the issues that I faced as emergency physician and what led me to this job and to public health is this feeling of helplessness that you don't want to open Pandora's box because you don't know what's in it. And you don't know what to do about it.

HSU: So you don't want to ask if someone's homeless, for instance, if you can't find them housing. Nowadays, though, she's asking lots of questions all over town.

CARLOS HARDY: This lady is, like, everywhere.

HSU: That's Carlos Hardy. He's founder of M-ROCC, an organization focused on recovery services. He towers over Leana Wen. I mean, she really is tiny. But he likens her to a field general who knows how to command her troops.

HARDY: When you talk to her, it's like you don't get the 30,000-foot level. It's like she looks you in the eye and what your issue is. She gives the feeling that it's important to her. And that's a gift. That's a gift for a - I'm not going to call her a politician but a government official.

HSU: Now, remember, this is Leana Wen's first job in government, and she only recently turned 33.

BEN SEIGEL: You know, people want to say that, oh, maybe she's naive 'cause she's younger, you know, than your typical health commissioner, but you know, I wouldn't say that she's naive. I mean, I think she's very savvy and strategic and smart.

HSU: This guy is Ben Seigel. For 10 months, he led the federal team put together by the White House to help Baltimore after Freddie Gray. He says Leana Wen really stood out for how convincing she was in laying out her priorities using science to make her arguments.

SEIGEL: She certainly has the ideas, and she certainly has the vision. But what she also has is that she's tireless, and she's not going to quit until she accomplishes her mission.

HSU: So that's outside view. Internally, it hasn't all gone smoothly. For a while, it seemed every time I showed up at the health department, someone had quite or been fired. Her pace, her style, her late-night conference calls didn't sit well with everyone. She told me as much herself.

WEN: I'm a very impatient person. This is a strength and a weakness. My strength is that I am very action-oriented. I believe that you can't just have a vision. You have to get it done. And I am an implementer and a person who executes, and I expect everyone to function at that level and speed. I know that a criticism could be and has been that I have a level of urgency to the work that may not be needed.

HSU: And that urgency is something I've actually experienced myself as I've chased her to community meetings and churches, to City Hall and the halls of Congress. She so polished every time she speaks that I was stunned to learn that not so long ago, her fear of speaking nearly silenced her. It turns out Leana Wen, who now delivers TED Talks and Senate testimony - she's a person who stutters. For years, she hid her stutter by avoiding certain words and sometimes by not talking at all. At a conference last summer, she shared a story from second grade when she was supposed to give a presentation about the Roman Empire.

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WEN: I was so terrified that I would stutter on the word Roman that I actually stabbed myself with a pencil into my thigh because I thought that that would get me out of speaking in class.

HSU: And later on, she said, she wanted to study neuroscience, but she couldn't say the word, so she never registered. Then midway through med school, she was elected president of the American Medical Student Association, and with it came a lot of public speaking. She was thrilled and, again, terrified. So for the first time, she sought help, and part of her therapy was going out and saying everything that she wanted to say - no avoiding words or substituting thoughts. She'd stutter if she had to. Her speech therapist, Vivian Sisskin, says after a shaky start, Leana Wen's impatience got the better of her.

VIVIAN SISSKIN: She didn't have patience for her own speech failures. It was unacceptable to her not to be able to do the things she wanted to do, and I think that's part of what drives her in a lot of ways - is that, if she can do it, she's going to find a way to do it.

HSU: And here's why that matters. That's the mindset Leana Wen has brought to city government. But of course, in government, there are some things that are totally out of your control, and for her, it was this.

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STEPHANIE RAWLINGS-BLAKE: I've made the decision not to seek reelection.

HSU: So that's Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake last September. And Audie, as you know, she'd taken a lot of flak for how she handled the Freddie Gray unrest.

CORNISH: Right. And this could have ramifications for Leana Wen, right? I mean, what does this mean for her, for these public health programs that she set in motion?

HSU: Well, she could be out of a job in January. You know, Stephanie Rawlings-Black has pretty much let her do everything she's wanted to do, and it's not clear whether a new mayor would do that or even keep her on. You know, in the audio diary she keeps for us, she was pretty emotional when she talked about it last fall.

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WEN: I feel like we've finally gotten to the point where we've identified the landscape, identified the players, identified the stakeholders, got buy-in for the problems that we have, and we're about to make significant changes to really improve the health and well-being of our residents.

CORNISH: You know, it's striking when you think of everything that the health department has been working on under her tenure, everything we've been reporting on - that this could go away in less than a year.

HSU: Yeah. It's definitely something looming over the health department. But people there have also told me, you know, we're under so much pressure to get things done that we don't even have time to worry.

CORNISH: Andrea Hsu, my producer and reporting partner on our series from Baltimore - Andrea, thanks so much for talking with us.

HSU: You're welcome, Audie.

CORNISH: And you can hear more about this series of stories at our website, npr.org.

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