"All of us have to be brave in calling out the problems we see."
This is the call to action that Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore City Health Commissioner, presented to the audience of Upper School students, faculty, staff and alumnae at the annual Elsie Foster Jenkins '53 Community Service Lecture in Garland Theater on May 5. As she shared her journey of coming to the United States from China after her family received asylum through becoming an emergency physician, patient and community advocate and public health trailblazer—Dr. Wen inspired the audience to rise to the challenge that she has set, and met, throughout her life and career.
Dr. Wen's career trajectory was inspired when as a child she endured the loss of a friend and neighbor due to asthma—a tragedy that likely could have been prevented. She became an emergency physician because she never wanted to have to turn away those who needed medical services. "I didn't want to have to make decisions about whose life is worth saving," Dr. Wen said. While working as an emergency physician, Dr. Wen realized that while her work was incredibly valuable to those she served, the value of the healthcare provided was severely limited by societal disparities and inequality.
In 2015, Dr. Wen was appointed as the Commissioner of Health for the City of Baltimore where she has worked successfully to address these disparities. Under her direction, the Baltimore City Health Department leads 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; Vision for Baltimore, an initiative to provide glasses to every child who needs them; Safe Streets, a program to engage returning citizens and hospitals in treating gun violence as a contagious disease; and Healthy Baltimore 2020, a blueprint for health and well-being that enlists all sectors to achieve the ambitious goal of cutting disparities in half in ten years. Facing an unprecedented number of people dying from opioid overdose, Dr. Wen issued a blanket prescription for the opioid antidote naloxone to all 620,000 residents of Baltimore. Since 2015, this program has saved over 800 lives.
Dr. Wen shared with the audience three ideas to keep in mind as guiding principles when thinking about public health, service and improving our world: starting as early as possible when it comes to addressing issues, weighing the cost of funding a program vs. the often higher cost of doing nothing and being open to pointing out the problems in our society.
"These problems can seem big," said Dr. Wen. "The biggest advice that I can give all of you as students is to do whatever you can and don't wait. Don't wait until you have all of the training. There are plenty of people that need your help right here in your community. Do whatever you can now, and you can make a difference in our society."
About the Jenkins Community Service Fund and Speaker
In 1999, friends and family honored Elsie's memory by establishing the Elsie Foster Jenkins Endowment Fund for Community Service. This fund provides an annual income in support of the broad volunteer Service League program, the Jenkins Fellowship program for in-depth, individual service programs at home and abroad, and brings to campus noted speakers on the topic of community service from both national and international organizations. Though the life stories of the speaker vary, the topic centers on public and community service. For a list of the world leaders who have shared their remarkable lives with our students.
2016 Jenkins Fellow: Caroline Cohen '18, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, Sarasota, FL