“Embrace the pursuit,” was a message echoed by Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, in a special forum with the University of Hawaiʻi John A. Burns School of Medicine (UH JABSOM) ʻOhana.
As a child she always knew she wanted to become a physician and serve others, one patient at a time. However, she never anticipated that she would one day hold the title of former chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, the teaching hospital of Harvard, prolific author of papers on the epidemiology of HIV, let alone, become the 19th director to lead the CDC.
“Embrace the pursuit” continues to be Walensky’s guiding principle throughout her illustrious career and draws parallels between her now being at the helm of the COVID-19 response and during her first year as an internal medicine resident in the 1990s during the raging AIDS epidemic.
“All you could really offer was your hand, an ear to listen to and your heart (in place of) where many people had been stigmatized and their families had left them,” said Walensky, who felt helpless while admitting patients into the hospital that either had HIV or were dying of AIDS. But that all changed by the end of December 1995, when a cocktail of antiretroviral drugs was first FDA-approved to combat the AIDS epidemic.
“It was a time where all of a sudden, one day people did not have hope and the next day you could give them some potential for life expectancy– and it was really remarkable!” Walensky said.
Motivated and energized by how quickly science was changing, she “rushed towards the disease where very little was known, where people had been stigmatized and where the cost of antiretroviral therapy, at $15,000 dollars a year, was too expensive for the populations that were contracting the disease,” Walensky said. “Those patients were the ones that shaped my career, ignited my passion for public health and ignited my passion for giving a voice to those that didn’t really have a voice and for fighting diseases and disparities. And that is why I went into the field of infectious diseases.”
She also acknowledged how tough the past few years have been on everyone due to the Coronavirus pandemic, especially on healthcare workers.
“We have this incredible opportunity (in healthcare), this incredible gift that we get to do the work that we do and give back to people. Embrace that gift everyday,” Walensky said. “Have some grace and take the time to take care of yourself so that you can give back in full force.”
As a second-year medical student finding himself pulled by many different interests including clinical care, health policy and public health, Anson Lee relished the fact that even Walensky did not go through medical school knowing the entire trajectory of her career. He was excited to be in the audience to hear from the director of the CDC– a rare occasion for any medical school and a gem for JABSOM.
“For her to come to the UH medical school, I think it’s pretty crucial especially because we’re in the middle of the Pacific and there are various patient populations here which you might not see on the continental U.S. and so the fact that she’s willing to speak with us here and try to get a better perspective on the challenges that we’re facing in Hawaiʻi– it’s great,” said Lee about Walensky’s visit.
During the discussion with JABSOM ʻOhana, Walensky was asked how she has risen above challenges that come with being a woman in medicine and academia. Her response? “Own it and embrace it.”
Walensky admitted that she is not a stranger to the frustration of being mistaken by a patient to be their nurse simply because of her gender or how she was invited, on several occasions, to take part in panels as the “token woman.” For the latter, she says she has never declined those types of invitations but instead “gave the best darn talk I’ve ever given.” Despite feeling defeated due to gender biases faced throughout her career, she encouraged other women to embrace and take advantage of every opportunity they have to get ahead because “it is your opportunity to shine and you will.”
Walensky also shared five lessons that have led her to where she is today: