Under the direction of Dr. Leana Wen, the Baltimore City Health Department is leading the country in health innovations, including “B’More for Healthy Babies,” a collective impact strategy resulting in a 38 percent reduction of infant mortality in just seven years.
Wen, whose parents immigrated to the United States when she was eight, has formed and led programs like “Vision for Baltimore,” an initiative to provide glasses to every child who needs them and “Healthy Baltimore 2020,” a blueprint for health and well-being that enlists all sectors to achieve the ambitious goal of cutting health disparities in half in ten years.
For Wen, a Rhodes scholar who received her medical training from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and Brigham & Women’s Hospital/Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, it’s quite easy to identify where she gets her inspiration.
“My mother.” she said. “My family came to the U.S. with less than $40 to our name and my parents worked many odd jobs.”
While she also credits her father for his hard work, clearly it was the trials and strength of her mother who carved a path of service for Wen.
“My mother cleaned hotel rooms and worked in a video store. She took night classes and eventually became a public school teacher. She took care of everyone, including me and my little sister and my father’s parents, all the while volunteering in the community,” Wen said about her mom who died eight years ago from breast cancer. “She’s someone that I look up to every day.”
With attention to sexual harassment in the workplace thanks to the #MeToo movement, Wen says she was about 10 years old when her mother was ill-treated by her boss.
“She had a boss who harassed her verbally and physically. I remember my mother coming home and she couldn’t stop crying. She thought if she spoke up, she’d lose her job, or her boss could place our entire family’s immigration status in jeopardy,” Wen recalled. “I could feel her shame, fear and indignity.”
Wen vowed that if she were ever in a position of power, she would help change such injustices.
She has done just that at the Baltimore City Health Department, implementing mandatory training for the leadership team. She has also hired qualified women to help lead her staff, with women as her Chief of Staff and all three of her Deputies.
“We have a zero-tolerance policy to ensure a workplace of equity and respect. Every allegation is immediately and thoroughly investigated. Discriminatory and unprofessional behavior is never tolerated or accepted,” Wen said. “My job as a leader is to speak up for all those who may not be able to. For those who may fear repercussion, as my mother did.”
Wen advises women and minorities on careers in public health. She also mentors young people who stutter.
“I had a severe speech impediment growing up,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine being someone else’s mentor. But no matter who we are, there’s someone out there looking up to us. It’s our obligation to be role models and lift others up with us.”
Wen has conducted health research in various countries, including some African nations. She says it has helped her shine a light on how people should view health.
“We think about health as health care,” Wen said. “But what determines how long and how well [we] live, is less about what happens in your doctor’s office and more about where one lives, the air we breathe, and other resources in our communities.”
She says it’s important to invest in public health.
“It’s also an investment in our public safety, our education and the future of our community,” Wen said.
A multiple award winner for her work, Wen credits the people she works with and Mayor Catherine Pugh for accolades like the 100 Most Influential Marylander’s and Maryland Leading Women awards. She has also received the American Public Health Association’s highest award for local public health— the Roemer Award.
“I work with a phenomenal team at the Baltimore City Health Department and every single person is an inspiration to me every day,” she said. “They come from the communities they serve, and are so passionate about serving the most vulnerable. I’m really very fortunate to work with this team and the honors that I receive, I do so on behalf of my team and the mayor.”