Interview With AAPI Author Dr. Leana Wen

Journey , Librarian,
Dr. Leana Wen and her book, Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health

Dr. Leana Wen (pronounced Lee-nah) is an emergency physician and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is a columnist for The Washington Post, where she writes a twice-weekly column on public health and health policy and anchors the Post newsletter, "The Checkup With Dr. Wen."

Previously, she served as Baltimore's Health Commissioner, leading the nation's oldest continuously operating public health department to fight the opioid epidemic, address disparities and mental health access, and improve maternal and child health. She's the author of two books, the most recent of which is Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health, and is a frequent on-air commentator for CNN, National Public Radio, and BBC.

Dr. Wen obtained her medical degree from Washington University School of Medicine and studied health policy at the University of Oxford, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She completed her residency training at Brigham & Women's Hospital & Massachusetts General Hospital, where she was a clinical fellow at Harvard Medical School. Her awards include being named one of Governing's Public Officials of the Year, Modern Healthcare's Top 50 Physician-Executives, and TIME's 100 Most Influential People. Dr. Wen joined me for a brief interview for the LAPL Blog. This interview intends to shed some light on Dr. Leana Wen's fascinating life, career, and personal connection to the Library and Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.


Starting from childhood, growing up, you did experience intermittent homelessness, but still made it to college by the age of 13. That must’ve required a huge amount of work and sheer determination. Did you have time for "ordinary childhood experiences?" What were some of your favorite childhood memories?

Yeah, it's a great question, and unfortunately, I'm not able to give you a very good answer because my answer is "No." There is a lot in my childhood that I missed that I now think back on now that I have 2 little children of my own. I want to make sure that they have the experiences I wished I had. Due to circumstances outside our control, my family and I moved around a lot. I went to a number of different schools, including starting at a lot of different schools at not the start of the year. It was difficult! It was difficult to move to the U.S. initially. We moved here just before I turned 8, and then we moved from Utah to Los Angeles, where I grew up. In L.A., I transferred to a number of different schools. I did not have time for "normal childhood activities," and "those are the experiences that I hope my children will be able to have. I have a few memories of things that I did. For example, for a brief time, I joined an orchestra and played the violin. I was on a track and field team for another brief period. Those are the experiences that really stick with me because that was when I thought that that was the beginning of a normal life.

Were you able to be supported in your schoolwork? Who were your biggest supporters, influences, and role models?

I have been fortunate throughout my life to have met mentors who fortuitously have become incredible role models and sources of support. For example, when I first started college at Cal State LA, I did not tell people I wanted to be a doctor because I thought that would seem unbelievable and people would laugh at me. I started working in a lab, and my lab mentor was the one who initially got it out of me that I wanted to go into medicine. He helped me get in touch with his other past students who were in residency or medical school. I was fortunate enough to have had many supporters, in this case, Dr. Raven Garcia, who had unfortunately passed away.

Personal Motivations

Do you have childhood trauma that you’ve had to heal? Why public health specifically? Can you share the moment or core memory that led you down that lifetime career/passion?

It's a difficult question to answer. I'd like to go back to what another one of my mentors said, Congressman Elijah Cummings, who I've seen a number of times in Lifelines. He talked about how it's it's passion that fuels your purpose. I wrote about this, this exact line in Lifelines, and it's it'st pain, passion, and purpose. It's pain that is the source of your passion, which then fuels your purpose. So yes, I have lived through many events in my life that have been very painful. For example, in Lifelines, I talked about how I watched a child die in front of me from asthma who was not able to get help in time. I had neighbors who struggled to get basic services to help with their diabetes, so they had high blood pressure or kidney disease, and they suffered unnecessarily because of that. But it's it's because of these painful experiences that fueled why I pursued a career in medicine and public health. Because it is about alleviating suffering and leveling the playing field of inequality.

Opioid Epidemic

What did you learn about the opioid epidemic throughout your career in public health, and do you have any insights as to how it got to the state it is today?

One of the key programs that I led when I started the Baltimore’s Health Commissioner was to help combat the opioid epidemic. At the time and now, there was an epidemic of opioid overdoses, and it’s a complex problem. We have to address the supply of opioids, and now especially of fentanyl, which is an extremely powerful opioid that is now mixed into prescription drugs. There is also the demand aspect, as to why people are demanding these drugs, leading to diseases of despair such as drug addiction and mental health crises. There is the treatment aspect as well that we need to be ready to treat people when they seek help because addiction is a disease. It needs to be treated with compassion as we do other diseases.

The reason we chose to target this issue in Baltimore is that addiction and mental health conditions affect virtually every family. That every family is touched by this in some way. And yet there is so much stigma and misunderstanding that surrounds behavioral health issues. So some of the things we did in Baltimore included issuing a blanket prescription to the entire city so that everyone can have access to the opioid antidote, Naloxone, that helped save over 3000 lives in 3 years. We also increased our treatment options by working with a lot of community hospitals and our community partners to reduce stigma and talk about addiction as the complex chronic disease that it is.

Covid Disinformation

What is the root cause of widespread COVID-19 disinformation? Why do you think there was such a strong "backlash" against public health regarding COVID-19 safety?

We need to separate out a few things. There are, in fact, individuals who are perpetuating disinformation knowingly, doing it for their own personal, financial, and/or political gains. There are also a lot of individuals who do not know that what they are saying or doing is promoting disinformation. There may also be individuals with real questions, and they should not be lumped in with those who are knowingly perpetuating disinformation. It actually becomes very off-putting to people who just want to do their best for themselves and their families, which I believe is the vast majority of people. They might be viewing information online and talking to others with inaccurate scientific information, but they are not deliberately trying to spread disinformation. Trying to promote accurate scientific information needs to take into account that a lot of people just want to get accurate information and that we have to approach these instances with compassion and empathy rather than judgment. At the same time, I do believe that there has been a backlash to public health since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a real issue, and I really worry about what it bodes for the future of public health. We may be in a situation where it would be more difficult for us to reign in future pathogens because of our unwillingness to abide by scientific recommendations.

Racial Hate / Aggression / Marginalization

In your career, have you faced significant struggles with racial discrimination? How have you managed to stay resilient throughout?

Certainly, during COVID, I would get messages, many messages on a daily basis that specifically called me out for my race and gender. Speaking to my colleagues who are not Asian, they do not receive such types of messages. It was a window into the vitriol that lies just beneath the surface. In part, you can call it racial discrimination, and another part is that there are a lot of individuals who are very angry for whatever reason. Maybe it is unresolved trauma in their own lives, or maybe they have mental health issues. But when a group appears to be vulnerable, those angry people begin to target those vulnerable groups. And unfortunately, Asian Americans have been in those vulnerable groups. And within Asian American communities, there are additional minority groups, including other racial minorities, women, trans and queer people, and other marginalized identities. It's important to recognIt'sand name it, and it is important to find our own ways of addressing the trauma that comes our way. My way is to be with my family, and I have 2 little kids now who are 6 and 4.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell people?

I’d like to highlight all the great work that libraries do! For me, libraries are always a safe place. Growing up when I first immigrated to the US, I didn’t know how to speak English. I learned in large part by reading. Then, subsequently, when my family moved around a lot, it was the library where I came to read after school every day. My parents were working, and we had no other childcare options, so I went to the library. It was the place where I always associated it as a safe place for me, physically as well as mentally. And now, libraries around us are where I take my children every week, and I want libraries to become their safe place as well.

Book cover of Lifelines : a doctor's journey in the fight for public health
Lifelines: A Doctor's Journey in the Fight for Public Health
Wen, Leana