When Dr. Leana Wen became Baltimore’s health commissioner at the beginning of 2015, she said she saw health through a lens that included education, poverty, safety and race.
She served two mayors with the holistic approach to leading the sprawling city agency, which employed more than 1,100 employees and operated with a budget exceeding $126 million.
The same approach did not serve her well in her next job, on a national stage, as CEO of Planned Parenthood, which ousted her Tuesday after only eight months. Some reports cited her management style, but Wen said she had “philosophical differences” with the board that wanted to focus on abortion rights advocacy.
She still calls Baltimore home. As she decides what to do next, some believe her broad approach could open doors here or elsewhere.
A trained emergency physician who never stopped working as a doctor, Wen said she plans to continue working in a Baltimore health center.
“It’s been a privilege to lead an organization that provides essential health care to millions of women and families,” she said Wednesday in a message to The Baltimore Sun.
“I am glad to be back home in Baltimore as I return to my professional roots: as a doctor serving my patients, as a public health leader serving communities most in need, and as an advocate for all people’s rights and freedoms.”
That advocacy could come in the form of another national leadership post, a university appointment or even an elected position. Some hope the job is in Baltimore.
Martha McKenna, a Democratic political media consultant who has worked to elect women, said she thought Wen would be wooed by national organizations and universities.
“But we really need her expertise and knowledge in Baltimore,” she said. “We face such huge systemic problems in health care, poverty and education.
"I’m sure she will get offers from organizations around the country, but I hope there is a space that could be created in Baltimore.”
Others noted Wen’s views are surely formed by her varied background. The 36-year-old came from China with her family when she was 8 and lived in a poor part of Los Angeles. She went to college when she was 13. She became a Rhodes Scholar. She’s served as a doctor, professor and health advocate.
When she came to interview in Baltimore for the health commissioner position with then-Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, she had so many ideas in so many areas that “we were amazed by her energy and passion,” said Kaliope Parthemos, who was the mayor’s chief of staff and sat in on the meeting.
“We had to take a breath when she walked out,” Parthemos said.
Parthemos said it wouldn’t be possible to solve all the ills of the city, which remains gripped by opioid and gun deaths and still logs a 20-year gap in the life expectancy between the most well-off and the lowest-income neighborhoods.
But Wen attacked a range of problems: She wrote a blanket prescription for city residents to gain the overdose remedy naloxone, expanding the drug’s reach. She launched a program that widely distributed glasses to schoolchildren at risk of falling behind because they couldn’t see the chalkboard. She championed an infant mortality program that reduced deaths. And she lobbied for the Safe Streets violence-prevention program.
She publicly demanded state and federal officials give Baltimore what she saw as the city’s fair share of funding, and she criticized the Trump administration for attacks on the Affordable Care Act.
It was her response to the unrest after the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, when Wen became focused on emotional trauma care for residents, that stuck with Parthemos.
Along the way, Wen became a constant presence in local and national media. She became known as a demanding boss, with employees working the same long hours she did. Some didn’t stay with the department. But other sought to follow her to Planned Parenthood.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, a former Baltimore health commissioner who met regularly with Wen during her tenure, said people saw her devotion to public health. And he expected Wen’s next position would not veer too far from that — in Baltimore or elsewhere.
“I think she can pretty much go anywhere from here,” said Beilenson, now director of the Sacramento County Department of Health Services. “She’s highly respected in the world of public health.
"Baltimore is a good place to take on some of the toughest public health challenges in the country, and she did that quite successfully for the years she was there.”