Former Baltimore health commissioner and city resident Dr. Leana Wen was removed in July as head of Planned Parenthood, but she quickly returned to a teaching position at George Washington University. The trained emergency physician plans to remain an advocate for public health, and with all of her experiences, she now has a few more things to say about it.
What is your main takeaway from your time at Planned Parenthood?
It was an incredible honor to represent an organization that has cared for one in five women in America — including my mother, my sister and me, at different points in our lives. I had the opportunity to travel around the country and to meet incredibly dedicated doctors, nurses and advocates who put everything on the line to care for their patients. They face death threats, bomb scares and unbelievable harassment because reproductive health care is singled out and treated as something other than what it is: health care.
I learned that smart, well-meaning people can differ on goals and strategy, and that change is extremely hard, especially when a conventional approach is being retooled. While I left Planned Parenthood sooner than I’d expected, I hope that some of the work my team and I started will continue, including the focus on public health and health equity.
How does being a new(ish) mom shape how you feel about work/life balance?
My son, Eli, is now 2 years old. It’s not an exaggeration to say that my entire perspective on work and life — not just work/life balance — has changed since Eli was born. Actually, this was one of the hardest parts about my job at Planned Parenthood: I was often traveling from Sunday afternoon to Friday evening. I missed my husband, Sebastian, and Eli very much. It broke my heart when, a few months into the job, Eli began crying when I came home because he saw me as a stranger.
What can employers do to support working parents?
Being a working mother has made me much more attuned to the needs of my employees and colleagues. I believe strongly that we as a society have a lot we must do in order to live up to our values of supporting women, children and families. This includes paid family leave, affordable child care, universal health care and ensuring workplace cultures of tolerance and respect to all pregnant, parenting and caregiving people.
How do Baltimore and Maryland stack up in terms of attention to women’s health?
In some ways, we are doing well. We are fortunate to have a history of elected officials and public health leaders who have passed laws and implemented programs to expand access to health care and safeguard reproductive health care. For example, the Maryland state legislature was the first in the country to pass protections for Title X funding, so that when it comes under threat from the Trump administration, low-income women in Maryland can still receive cancer screenings, STI tests and birth control.
At the same time, in Baltimore, in Maryland, just like all across the country, we face unacceptable disparities and poor health outcomes. [There is a] huge unmet need when it comes to mental health, addiction treatment and other factors that directly contribute to health, such as housing, food and transportation access.
What’s next for you?
I’m glad to be a visiting professor at George Washington University, teaching health policy to future medical, nursing and public health students, while spending more time with my family and figuring out next steps and how I can best contribute to improving the public’s health.
Any other activities planned in Baltimore?
I’ll be joining the board of the Baltimore Community Foundation. I’ll be supporting their overall work on education and community development and assisting them with advocacy work for youth and families in Baltimore — things I already work on and support.
Anything to add?
Sebastian and I are looking forward to bringing baby No. 2 into the world, to Baltimore! Eli’s brother or sister is due at the end of March.
Dr. Leana Wen will be the keynote speaker at The Baltimore Sun’s Women to Watch networking event on Thursday, Oct. 10, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Tickets are available online for $68.