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Pain Into Purpose: Dr. Leana Wen Shares Her Life Story

BALTIMORE (WJZ) -- Dr. Leana Wen is a doctor, TV analyst and public health expert who has taken center stage during the COVID-19 pandemic. But while Baltimoreans know Dr. Wen from her time as the city's health commissioner, few details about her personal life have been revealed.

That is until the release of her book over the summer. "Lifelines" chronicles Wen's life journey and explores the formative moments, both good and bad, that led her to become who she is today.

One of the most pivotal moments detailed in the book was the needless death of a boy with asthma, a tragedy that haunts Wen to this day. She was 10 years old when her neighbor needed medical attention. His grandmother would not call for help because they were undocumented immigrants and she feared deportation.

"She was afraid the immigration authorities would show up and, as a result, he died. This little boy died," Wen recalled during an interview with WJZ. "I saw him die literally in front of me."

Sitting in the backyard of her Baltimore home, Wen still gets upset when talking about a broken system that doesn't allow everyone to have equal access to health care. Though decades have passed since her neighbor died, inequality within the health care system remains.

"I write in this book how the opposite of poverty is health," Wen said.

Poverty is something she knows all too well. After she was born in Shanghai, China, her parents moved to the U.S. when she was 7. Her family only had $40 when they arrived. She knows firsthand the pressures that financial insecurity can inflict at home.

"I remember there were two issues my parents talked about every day, they worried about every day, they argued about every day," she said. "And that was money and our immigration status."

These are some of the memories that flooded her mind when she sat down to write "Lifelines." As a child, she came to know eviction and homelessness. She acknowledged that she suppressed some of those memories and feelings over the years.

"There was a lot I had not thought about my old childhood. A lot I had maybe tuned out on purpose because there were parts of my childhood that were really hard," Wen said.

Despite those challenges, Wen entered college at the age of 13. She followed that up with medical school at 18 and became a Rhodes Scholar. These days, she's a professor, doctor, writer, and CNN analyst. But even though she has enjoyed a successful professional career, none of it has come easy.

"[I] actually felt pretty nervous when the book first came out because there were so many parts of my upbringing and my life that, at different points of my life, were sources of shame," she said. "And it was hard for me to share."

Those insecurities included a severe speech impediment, a condition she tried desperately to hide. She said she did not want anyone to see her stutter, especially as a child struggling to learn English.

Like poverty, Wen persevered through her stutter and the language barrier. Her discipline and drive to overcome those challenges and others might have originated with her mother, who challenged her daily.

"She knew that I needed to learn English very quickly," Wen remembered. "And so, she said to me, 'You have to memorize 100 vocabulary words every day.' When she got home, she would quiz me on 100 words."

If her parents hadn't been granted political asylum in the U.S., Wen said, she might now be a Dreamer instead. That's a term for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as minors and are given temporary residency with the potential to become permanent residents if certain conditions are met.

And if it weren't for her mentors in college, she said, she might not have become a doctor at all.

It was while discussing her hardships that Wen brought up the words Elijah Cummings, the late congressman from Maryland who often spoke about the significance of pain as a motivator.

"He liked to say, 'You turn your pain into your passion, that is your purpose,'" she said. "Pain, passion, purpose."

In her book, she describes her life as a "journey into public health." In 2014, that journey led her to Baltimore where she was presented with an opportunity to become the city's authority on public health. It's a responsibility Wen did not take lightly.

"I was so excited and so grateful to have the opportunity to have had my dream job, which was to become the city's doctor and the Baltimore Health Commissioner," she said.

Wen's accomplishments as health commissioner are detailed in the book. While they can be attributed to the qualities that made her successful – hard work, dedication, ambition – Wen believes there might have been something else in play, too.

"I would add one more word to what I have been, which is lucky," she said.

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