Planned Parenthood's President Says It's "Terrifying" How Health Care Has Become Political

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BAW Dr. Leana Wen
Photo: Courtesy © Planned Parenthood

“You have to be fearless. But that comes from figuring out what you stand for and then never letting up, no matter what you face,” says Dr. Leana Wen, the president of Planned Parenthood.

As an emergency-room physician — Dr. Wen was among those who tended to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013 — her goal wasn’t only to provide life-saving treatment but also to advocate for patients’ rights. She tells InStyle that she has dedicated her career to striving to fix our health-care system so that every patient is treated with dignity, compassion, and respect.

This conviction stems partly from a life-changing event during her medical training, which helped her see health care from a patient’s perspective. Her mother developed an illness and was incorrectly diagnosed with depression and anxiety. It took over a year of being treated for the wrong condition before she was correctly diagnosed with cancer; by that time the cancer had metastasized.

“My mother’s doctors and nurses were trying to do the right thing — nobody goes into the healing profession because we want to do harm to our patients — but something wasn’t working,” she says. As her mother’s caregiver for eight years, Dr. Wen says she saw firsthand the disconnect between what our health-care system is meant to be doing and the kind of care patients are actually receiving.

These experiences also informed her work in her previous role as the health commissioner of Baltimore. Dr. Wen was widely credited with revamping the city’s services but what she is most proud of is the direct impact she and her team had on people’s lives. Under her direction, the Health Department developed what she calls an aggressive, comprehensive strategy for preventing overdoses and treating drug addiction. In 2015, Dr. Wen issued a standing order to make the antidote for opioid overdose, naloxone, available to all Baltimore residents without a prescription.

In just three years, residents were able to save nearly 3,000 people from overdosing on opioids, including heroin and prescription-pain medication like OxyContin. Dr. Wen also initiated Vision for Baltimore, a program that distributes eyeglasses to kids who need them, free of charge, without the child having to miss school or their parents or caregivers having to miss work. To date, around 5,000 pairs have been distributed.

Then, last fall, to underscore its role in providing essential health-care services, Planned Parenthood tapped Dr. Wen to helm the organization; she is the first physician in nearly 50 years to hold that position. Growing up without means, she, along with her mom and sister, received medical care from the local Planned Parenthood, so for Dr. Wen, its mission is personal.

Following political unrest in China that culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, a not-quite-8-year-old Wen and her father left their home country for the United States; her mother had arrived a few months prior. The family was granted political asylum (and, in 2003, U.S. citizenship) and eventually settled in East L.A. Her parents worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, but, like many people with low incomes, they had to rely on Medicaid and Planned Parenthood for health services. “Planned Parenthood was there to provide the care we needed when we couldn’t find it anywhere else,” says Dr. Wen.

In her first month at the organization, she and her team launched This Is Health Care, a campaign to remind the public that Planned Parenthood offers a wide range of services including birth control, abortion care, STI testing, breast exams, and testicular- and prostate-cancer screening. “For so many patients who come to us, we are their only source of care,” says Dr. Wen. “I wanted people to know what they can count on us for.”

The toughest part of her job, she says, is making sure that everyone has access to health care without barriers or political roadblocks. “As a doctor, it’s incredibly frustrating and, frankly, terrifying how health care, particularly women’s health care and sexual and reproductive health care, is singled out and politicized,” Dr. Wen tells InStyle. Approximately 8,000 patients a day are served by Planned Parenthood, and when they walk through the doors, they aren’t making a political statement, she says. “They are seeking basic, life-saving medical care. Getting vaccinations shouldn’t be political. Getting medicine for your child shouldn’t be political. Birth control shouldn’t be political.” But for many Americans, especially people of color, people with low incomes, and LGBTQ people, she notes, obtaining health care unimpeded is becoming increasingly difficult.

The organization’s latest challenge is taking on the Trump administration’s rule governing the federal Title X program, which provides money for low-income Americans to receive family-planning and preventive health-care services. The new regulation would effectively divert these funds away from groups that provide abortion referrals and toward faith-based groups that oppose abortion. (Groups that receive funding under the program are already prohibited from using the money to perform abortions.)

Dr. Wen calls the ruling unethical, dangerous, and illegal, which is why Planned Parenthood, along with the American Medical Association and a coalition of 21 attorneys general, is suing the Trump administration. “Title X is meant to ensure that women and families with low incomes, who live in rural areas, who don’t have health insurance can get breast- and cervical-cancer screenings, birth control, and primary and preventive care,” she says. She believes that the aim of the rule is to dismantle the program and prohibit health-care providers from giving patients all the information they need to make informed medical decisions. In response, the nonprofit has also launched the ProtectX campaign to raise public awareness and galvanize support in protecting these vulnerable groups of patients.

On ending health-care stigma: One personal challenge that deepened Dr. Wen’s empathy for patients was a serious speech disorder, at one time a source of shame for her but now, she says, it’s a core of her identity. “For as long as I could remember, I had a severe stutter, but I was so ashamed that even as a very young person, I got very good at hiding it. If I couldn’t say ‘pencil,’ I would say ‘something to write with,’ or if I couldn’t say my name, I would find a reason to leave the room by the time introductions were done and come back.” Now 36, she says she didn’t seek treatment until her early 20s because she was mortified to admit she had a disorder and ask for help, yet the experience helped her relate better to her own patients. “I now have a deeper understanding for patients who come to me and how they have their own source of fear, shame, and stigma,” explains Dr. Wen. “That’s what drives me so much more in treating everyone with dignity and compassion.”

A word to the wise: Dr. Wen says it’s important to remember that just as you look to others when you encounter hurdles in life, there is always someone else facing problems who’s looking to you. Offering advice to anyone going through difficult times, she recounts something that one of her close friends has said: “Passion often arises from pain. And passion leads to purpose. Everyone experiences pain, but it’s up to us what we choose to do with our pain. You can turn that pain into passion, and then as you pursue your passion, it will lead you to your purpose.” (That friend is Congressman Elijah Cummings, who represents the 7th district of Maryland in the U.S. House of Representatives; he is one of Dr. Wen’s greatest role models.)

Family ties: Her biggest role model, however, is her mom. Like her father, says Dr. Wen, her mother came to America with no connections and no idea how to navigate life here. “She cleaned hotel rooms and worked in a video store to help support us. And over the course of her life she worked her way through school and eventually became a teacher, all while building a life for our family in a new country, away from everything she had ever known. She is my hero.”

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