Leanna Wen: Working a Million Hours to Heal a City

Olga Khazan
The Atlantic

At 7 a.m. on a recent Friday, I met Leana Wen, Baltimore’s new health commissioner, in the gleaming lobby of St. Agnes hospital on the far west side of the city. Wen looked polished in a black dress, white jacket, and pearl necklace. We were there because she was scheduled to attend a meeting with a group of healthcare workers, and I was following her around for the day.

I had just driven an hour and a half from Northern Virginia after staying up late finishing a story the night before. I had also just chugged my third coffee of the morning, but I was still fighting the nauseated, almost drunk sensation that’s my body’s way of telling me I should not be awake. In short, I was pooped. Wen was not.

As I sat down on the bench next to her, she flung her computer onto my lap. “Can you please look at this op-ed I wrote?” she asked.

The article was about the recent death of Freddie Gray—the 25-year-old black man who was thrashed around in a police van until he died—and the protests that shook Baltimore afterward. Wen made the argument, supported by evidence, that drug abuse, poverty, and mental illness are driving high incarceration rates in big cities—and, consequently, the citizen outrage over them. Most arrests in Baltimore are drug-related, and she thinks that if there were better programs for drug-addicted and mentally ill Baltimoreans, fewer people would be thrown in jail.

Wen had written the op-ed in the wee hours of the morning after having worked 14 hours the day before. Aside from two tiny typos, it was flawless. (It was later published in The Washington Post.)

Since January, Wen has been running one of America’s oldest and most experimental health departments, in one of the poorest cities in the country. Throughout my day with her, I learned a lot about how racial disparities and poverty pry an immense gap in the health outcomes of a community. I heard about some unusual strategies—like using ex-cons to patrol neighborhoods and break up fights—that public-health experts are employing in order to address those problems.

Also, I learned that I cannot keep up with Dr. Leana Wen.

Read more here.