Leana Wen of Planned Parenthood Wants to Tackle the “Fundamental Unfairness in Our System”

Here is an excerpt from David Gelles’ interview of Leana Wen for The New York Times. To read the complete article and check out other resources, please click here.

Credit: Erik Tanner for The New York Times

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Dr. Leana Wen immigrated to the U.S. at 7, graduated college at 18, became a Rhodes scholar and is now at the front lines of the fight over women’s health care rights.

When Leana Wen became president of Planned Parenthood last year, she had big shoes to fill. Her predecessor, Cecile Richards, emerged as a major voice on issues involving public health and women’s rights during her 12 years in the job.

But Dr. Wen, who is 36, came with her own eye-popping credentials. She was born in Shanghai and immigrated to the United States when she was 7, living first in Utah, then in Los Angeles. She skipped high school and started college when she was 13, aspiring to be a doctor.

She graduated summa cum laude at 18, then went to the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, did a residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and was a clinical fellow at Harvard. She also received master’s degrees in economic and social history and modern Chinese studies from the University of Oxford, in England, where she was a Rhodes scholar.

She has served as president of the American Medical Student Association, penned an essay that won her a trip to Africa with The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and wrote a book, “When Doctors Don’t Listen: How to Avoid Misdiagnoses and Unnecessary Tests.”

In all her work, Dr. Wen has made efforts to treat not just her patients’ immediate concerns, but to address what she sees as the systemic causes of poor health, including pollution, poverty and bad laws. Dr. Wen was serving as health commissioner for Baltimore — which she described as her “dream job” — when she made the move to Planned Parenthood.

This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at Planned Parenthood’s offices in New York City.

What was your childhood like?

I was raised mainly by my grandparents. My mother was in school and working. My father had a lot of political issues and was incarcerated for part of my childhood. My mother ended up coming to Logan, Utah, as a student, and my father and I came a few months later.

We went from a city of 26 million people to this town in northern Utah. There weren’t any other immigrants there, and there was no English as a second language program. I just had to learn. But the other kids and teachers were so kind to me.

Were your parents able to find work?

My parents were both professionals in China. My mother taught English at a university and my father worked as an engineer. But in the U.S. they had trouble finding jobs that were appropriate for their skill sets. My mother initially cleaned hotel rooms, then did some translation and worked in a video store. And my father worked a lot of odd jobs, then worked in a cheese factory. He still can’t look at cheese.

And you picked up English pretty quickly?

I had to. It wasn’t an option not to. My parents sacrificed everything because they wanted a better life for me and my little sister. That’s why we came to the U.S. So it wasn’t an option not to step up to those high expectations. So I didn’t go to high school. There was an early entrance program at California State in Los Angeles, and I started college at 13.

How did that happen?

If my parents could work two, three jobs each and raise me, then it’s the least that I could do to learn English and test into college. And I was really fortunate that early on in college, I met mentors who believed in me in a way that I didn’t believe in myself. I had this childhood dream that I wanted to be a doctor, but I came from a neighborhood and an environment where nobody around me was a doctor. I literally didn’t know how one goes from studying in college to becoming a doctor.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

To learn more about him and his work, please click here.


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