Dr. Leana Wen Wants to Tackle the Ills in the Health Care System
Sometimes when Dr. Leana Wen thinks about how public policies affect private lives, she thinks of little scraps of paper. In September, four months after Cecile Richards stepped down as president of Planned Parenthood, Wen, 36, became the first physician in almost 50 years to hold that role, and the first Asian-American and immigrant. Born in Shanghai, Wen moved to the U.S. shortly before her eighth birthday to escape the persecution her family faced as political dissidents after her father was incarcerated for his activism. Her mother was the first of them to leave the country; Wen and her father were meant to follow shortly thereafter. “Then my father had a massive gastrointestinal bleed,” says Wen. “He was in the ICU, and we wanted to postpone our trip, except that we thought we would not be reissued a visa and wouldn’t have the money to buy another plane ticket.” Her parents had saved for their tickets for years.
Wen and her father left the hospital for the airport, where her grandfather, who spoke English, pulled out scraps of paper and began writing instructions for any number of outcomes. “I had all these pieces of paper with English and Chinese — because I read Chinese — all these pieces of paper where if a certain situation happened, I would show it to the airline stewardess or to immigration to explain what was happening if my father died.”
Thankfully he didn’t, and the family eventually settled in East L.A. “I mean, we had a typical immigrant story, even though there’s no such thing as a typical story,” she says. In China, her father had been an engineer and her mother a college professor; in California, her father delivered newspapers and washed dishes in a restaurant while her mother cleaned hotel rooms. They depended on Medicaid and food stamps. Wen’s mother — and later Wen and her younger sister as well — went to Planned Parenthood for health care services. In the low-income neighborhoods where her family lived, says Wen, “I saw all the time what happens when people go without access to health care.”
Her perspective made her want to become a doctor, but it seemed like an impossible goal for someone in her position. At age 13 — the same year she started an early-entrance college program — she got a job in a lab. One day, one of the doctors asked her, “‘What do you really want to do? Because I can help you do that.’ I thought that he would laugh, because who was I to become a doctor?” says Wen. Instead, he began to mentor her. At age 18, she started medical school, having been offered full scholarships at eight schools. She went on to become a Rhodes scholar, president of the American Medical Students Association and a Harvard Medical School clinical fellow. She also did a fellowship with the World Health Organization in Geneva, worked in Rwanda with women affected by HIV/AIDS, and took a year off to lobby in D.C. for reproductive rights. She became an ER doctor because she “never wanted to turn anyone away.”
Now, it’s hard for Wen to pinpoint the pivotal moment when she realized that medicine was not just a matter of science but of social justice. Of course, there was her journey from China, but there was also the time in elementary school when she watched a neighborhood boy die of an asthma attack because his undocumented family was too scared to call 911. There was the woman she saw die in the ER after a botched abortion, the young mother without insurance who waited more than a year to have a breast lump examined and died of metastatic cancer, the middle-aged woman who couldn’t afford her blood-pressure medication and was paralyzed by a stroke. “I mean, there are dozens, hundreds, countless examples like that,” says Wen. “My patients are sick not just because of their illness, but because of so many other factors in our system that are making them ill. And I would not be the best doctor I can be if I did not also fight against these systemic injustices.”
Which is exactly what she did as commissioner of health for the city of Baltimore, where she instituted a program that reduced infant mortality by 38 percent, provided free eyeglasses to every public-school student who needed them, and saved nearly 3,000 lives by making the opioid-overdose antidote Narcan available over-the-counter to every resident in the city. She also sued the Trump administration — and won — when it cut funding for a sex-education program. Another suit, “for intentionally and willfully sabotaging the Affordable Health Care Act,” is still pending.
In her new role, Wen provides a clear signal that Planned Parenthood is not just an advocacy group but a health care provider, serving 8,000 people in this country every day with services such as birth control, breast exams and STD screenings. But, as she well knows, access to health care requires activism. “We should not be singling out and stigmatizing one aspect of health care,” she says. “I know, as a physician, that reproductive health care is health care, that women’s health care is health care, that abortion is part of the full spectrum of reproductive health care and needs to be treated as the standard medical care that it is.” She’s heartened by the election of the 116th Congress, which was being sworn in the very day we spoke: “The last midterms, the American people, particularly women of color, rose up and made clear that as a country, we are pro-women, pro-reproductive health, and pro-reproductive rights.” As Trump tries to squeeze Planned Parenthood out of economic existence, and Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment to the Supreme Court threatens Roe v. Wade, Wen keeps this more-silent majority in mind. “We’re going on the offense,” she says. “We’re looking to expand.”