BALTIMORE — "I wanted to show the world about all the great things that are happening in Baltimore."
Former Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen is sharing a side of Baltimore that doesn't make the headlines.
In her new book, Lifelines she talks about her time running the health department and her determination to keep the focus on public health.
"Public health works when it's invisible. We have prevented something from happening," she said.
From 2014-2018, Dr. Wen took on everything from healthy babies to the opioid epidemic by training the public to save lives declaring addiction as a treatable disease.
"What is the face of someone who could've died from overdose if not for Narcan, the opioid antidotes that they got, I wanted to put the face on public health and tell that story so to let people know about the life saving impact of public health," she continued.
Her family came to the U.S. with only 40 dollars.
As a child growing up in China she saw public health fail, stories that would shape her desire to become a doctor.
She watched her 7 year old neighbor die.
"I could see that Tony was having an asthma attack. So, I have asthma and I said let me check the inhaler. It was empty. I got my inhaler. He was still struggling to breathe, and I could see that fear. I knew that he needed help in a way that we couldn't provide at home, but his grandmother was too afraid to call 911 because his family was undocumented," Dr. Wen detailed.
Wen also believes public health is tied to crime.
"It doesn't work to incarcerate people who have the disease of addiction, people who have mental health issues or homelessness. We should address these social needs and not put them in jail," she said.
In 2015, the death of Freddie Gray brought riots, unrest, and another challenge for the public health system.
"We as the health department had to work with police and the fire department to figure out how patients were going to get to medical appointments," said Dr. Wen. "We didn't know which doctor’s officers were open. There were patients that needed chemotherapy. Those centers were closed and so helping people to navigate them and saw that 12, 13 of our pharmacies burned down, looted or closed."
Her book about Baltimore was written in February 2020, then came COVID, and that meant a re-write.
"COVID-19 is the ultimate failure of public health. You have this contagious disease that disseminated our economy," explained Dr. Wen. "It's prevented our children from going to school, that's led to so much worldwide destruction and death because we didn't have the infrastructure in place."
While there's been progress with the vaccine, the crisis over COVID isn't over, and as a mother of two young children she worries.
"This can't be framed as a matter of individual choice. It's not just the people who are choosing to be unvaccinated who are getting ill, we're also talking about our unvaccinated children, we're also talking about immunocompromised individuals and people with chronic medical illnesses who are more likely to get the Delta variant and to become seriously ill as well," she said. "But there's also the disinformation on top of that, that’s made them not make the choice to protect themselves and their families."