It was just a couple of weeks ago that Dr. Leana Wen announced she was stepping down as Planned Parenthood’s president and chief executive officer. In an op-ed for the New York Times, Wen explained that she had “philosophical differences” with the organization’s board over how to protect reproductive rights.
Long before she joined Planned Parenthood, Wen had already carved out a phenomenal career in public health. As the health commissioner of Baltimore, she garnered national recognition after writing a blanket prescription for the overdose medication naloxone, ensuring that the city’s residents had access to the life-saving therapy.
In a candid new interview, Wen spoke with Katie Couric Media about her philosophy on health care, President Donald Trump’s attacks on Baltimore, and what’s next for her.
Katie Couric: Seems like it’s been a crazy couple of weeks for you. How are you feeling?
Leana Wen: Great! I am glad to be home in Baltimore and spending time with my almost 2-year old son, Eli.
You already had such a remarkable career before joining Planned Parenthood. Could you tell us about what inspired you to pursue a medical degree in the first place, and what you had envisioned for your career when you were first starting out?
When my family and I first came to the U.S., we really struggled. My parents worked two, often three, jobs each, but we still depended on Medicaid and food stamps. We lived paycheck to paycheck. Several times, we were evicted because we couldn’t pay rent. I saw my parents, and so many of our friends and neighbors around us, go without health care. My goal was always to be the doctor for my community, to serve those who otherwise would go without care, people who are the most vulnerable.
I became an emergency physician because I never wanted to turn anyone away — I wanted to treat everyone who came to me for help, regardless of where they came from or their ability to pay.
How did you transition from working as an emergency room doctor to working in the public health field?
It was from working in the ER that I saw how much our health care system is failing patients. One of my patients was a woman in her fifties who suffered from a stroke. She couldn’t speak and was paralyzed on one side of her body. We treated her stroke with the best medical resources available, but what was the reason she had a stroke? She didn’t have health insurance (she had a “pre-existing condition” and was priced out of it), couldn’t afford her medications, and was cutting her blood pressure medications in half. The irony was that because of her stroke, she qualified for Medicaid for her health insurance. But what kind of system do we live in that we wait until someone is so ill before we treat them?
I went into public health because I wanted to address all the factors that affect health — not only the quality of health care that my patients receive, but also affordability of care; access to transportation, food, clean air, and education; and economic stability — all the issues that directly impact health and are impacted by health.
In my city of Baltimore, there is a 20-year difference in life expectancy depending on what zip code a child happens to born into. These disparities are unacceptable and bend the arc of our universe away from justice. Public health is a critical tool for me to help my patients fight to access the care they need, because it’s not enough to have health care available if there are barriers in place that prevent people from literally accessing that care.
President Donald Trump has launched an attack against Baltimore on social media. How would you respond to his continued insults against the city?
Baltimore is where my husband and I have chosen to make our home, where we are proud to raise our son, Eli (who is named after my hero, Congressman Elijah Cummings). It was my dream job — and profound privilege — to serve as the Health Commissioner for my city, to wake up every day with the singular goal of improving lives for people in my community, alongside some of the most dedicated people I have ever known.
You’ve had so many different experiences in the arena of health care: as a doctor, a public health official, the daughter of a patient, a woman, and a mother. So, with all that, what is your philosophy behind health care?
Health care is a human right, not a privilege available only to some. Also, it’s not enough to just talk about health care, when so much of what determines how long and how well we live is not just about the care we receive — it’s also about all the other factors that impact our health. We must focus on improving health, and, just as importantly, achieving equity through reducing the rampant disparities that bend the arc of our universe away from justice.
Similarly, what is your philosophy about reproductive health care?
As a physician, I see reproductive health care as inseparable from and an integral part of health care. It’s our responsibility to treat the whole patient. Someone who is coming in requesting birth control may also have diabetes, asthma, and food insecurity. Practicing good medicine means addressing all the issues that affect our patients — which includes their reproductive health.
Unfortunately, reproductive health care has been stigmatized, siloed, and attacked. All of us have a role to play to ensure that it is seen as no different from the rest of health care—which means that we have to depoliticize and normalize this essential aspect of our care.
You wrote such an incredible piece for the Washington Post about your recent miscarriage. Did it help you to share your story? What reactions did you receive to that piece?
I wasn’t intending to share my story. Actually, I’d hoped that I could share a very different story, the story of my pregnancy. My husband and I were so excited for baby No. 2, a sibling for Eli.
But then my miscarriage happened, and I felt such shame and self-blame. I shared my story because so many women have been where I was, and I wanted to help fight the stigma and shame.
I heard from so many people across the country — including friends who I didn’t know had miscarriages, and so many women who wrote to me about their own trauma and healing. I am still healing myself, and am grateful to have had the opportunity to hear from so many who share in the process with me.
You’ve spoken openly about your experience of immigrating to the U.S. as a child. Immigration is such a hot topic right now, particularly with the humanitarian crisis at the border. What are the health care aspects of the migrant crisis that people might not be aware of?
As a mother, I cannot imagine the trauma that comes from having children torn from their parents. Family separation will cause generations of trauma, which will impact not only children’s emotional health but their physical health and well-being too.
Also, when people are too scared to seek medical care because they fear deportation, this impacts everyone. Infectious diseases can spread. And when people seek only ER care when they are gravely ill, this increases the cost to the entire community. For many reasons, health needs to be a priority—no one should be too scared to seek the care they need for themselves and their families.
Lastly, we’d love to know what’s next for you — can you give us even a hint?
My entire life has been focused on caring for and fighting for women, families, and communities, particularly those who are the most vulnerable. I’m excited to continue to do this, as I return to my professional roots of medicine and public health. More to come!
This interview has been edited and condensed.
*This interview was featured in Katie Couric’s Wake-Up Call newsletter. For more interviews like this, subscribe here.