Rachel Levin is one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year, a recognition of women across the country who have made a significant impact. The annual program is a continuation of Women of the Century, a 2020 project that commemorated the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Meet this year’s honorees at womenoftheyear.usatoday.com.
In any administration, the public health of Americans is a priority – a tenet that signifies prosperity and perseverance among us. But during a global pandemic, when relative calm turns to crisis seemingly overnight, community well-being instantly becomes a matter of life or death for millions of Americans.
Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, this fact continues to keep Adm. Rachel Levine up at night.
Levine is the US assistant secretary for health for the US Department of Health and Human Services and the head of the US Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, where she leads a group of 6,000 uniformed public health officers.
In normal times, her job is important. During a pandemic, it’s crucial.
“I really feel that everything I’ve ever done, whether it was in academic medicine, in education, in clinical research, seeing my patients in my role in public health, in Pennsylvania and now my role nationally,” Levine said, “has all led to this moment in terms of helping the nation through this greatest public health crisis that we have faced in over a hundred years.”
Levine, 64, a trained pediatrician, became the nation’s highest-ranking openly transgender official last March when the Senate confirmed her as assistant secretary of health. Levine has spent her professional life in medicine – as an academic, a clinical researcher, a primary care physician and as Pennsylvania’s physical general and secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health – but she admits her current role of ella has come to be the most challenging .
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Beyond the pandemic, Levine said she is concerned about the challenges women and girls face related to body image. She ran an eating disorder program at Penn State University and was struck by the pressures of social media related to appearance.
“We need to be welcoming and celebratory for women of all aspects, of all sizes and shapes,” she said. “And we have to work towards that compassion for all women and not put such an emphasis on thinness and appearance. I think that we need to work as a culture in the United States, but also globally, to be more compassionate and more accepting of girls and women, no matter what their size and shape.”
Still, Levine believes that women are largely responsible for the positive changes we are seeing in society.
“Women are absolutely critical in terms of promoting healthy behaviors for themselves and their families and our communities,” Levine said. “I think women are often the creators of change. In terms of the changes that we see in our society and our culture, I think that women are those changemakers.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
I think that it is very important for people to take into consideration all of the different factors that influence their own health but also influence the health of their communities. The pandemic has taught us like nothing before how interconnected we all are.
The personal decisions that we make influence our families, our communities, our nation and the world. So I think that people need to make their own choices for themselves and their family, but realize the implications that those choices have on others and that we all need to work together for the common good.
Well, first, as a clinician, I learned the ability to compartmentalize. When you are seeing a patient and their family of her, you have to be able to put aside anything else that is going on, either in your personal life or anything else that’s going, and then focus on the patient and their family of her. And I have always been able to do that.
And so I do the same thing in terms of the challenges that we have faced in public health, whether it’s COVID-19, whether it’s the overdose crisis, whether it’s the environmental challenges posed by climate change – compartmentalize other things that are going on and to focus on what needs to be done right now for these challenges.
I think my definition of courage would be to be true to yourself, be true to who you are and then to pay that forward, to work towards the common good. That’s what I have always tried to do.
Well, I’ve always been motivated by my parents. My father has passed, but my mother is still alive and she is quite the role model. She is a retired attorney. Of course, I’m always motivated by my children, who motivate me to work for the common good. I’ve always been motivated by those who work for the benefit of others, and that’s what I try to do.
I think you have to be true to yourself and I think that you have to be who you are. You have tremendous worth just for who you are, no matter who you love, no matter who you are, no matter what your gender identity, sexual orientation or anything else, and to be, be true to that. And then everything else will follow.
It highlights something which I truly believe in, which is the value of diversity. Diversity is just so important in our culture. It’s important for our country, for the world. And I truly believe that diversity in all of the myriad and wonderful aspects that we see has positive benefits for any organization. Any government organization, any business, any school. And so we really need to welcome diversity and actually celebrate diversity for what it brings to us as a nation and what it brings to us globally.
I think that the guiding principle would be compassion for others and to help others to serve and to help others. And that’s what I have really always tried to do in all aspects of my life, to consider other people and to do the best that I can to help them.
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Continue to channel any challenges you might face or the anxiety that those challenges might produce and to compartmentalize them when necessary and to channel them into your work, helping others. And so I have been able to do that. Of course, not one’s perfect. Continue to do that, and things will work out.
I really enjoy music, and I find it very relaxing for me. I’m a child of the ’60s and the ’70s. So we’re looking at music from about 1964 to 1979. So we’re looking from The Beatles to the Bee Gees. We’re looking from Donovan to Dire Straits. We’re looking from the Byrds to Boston in terms of the different groups. But then also some more soft rock; I love Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Carole King, those type of artists. So that’s often what I do to relax.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism