Dr. Kenneth Freedberg was standing at his wife’s bedside in a Boston hospital’s intensive care unit when an unexpected visitor entered: Dr. Rochelle Walensky.
“We were there for no more than 45 minutes when Rochelle walks in,” said Freedberg, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“She didn’t work there,” he said, recalling his friend Walensky’s visit after his wife had suddenly taken ill 10 years ago. “She is always there for people she is committed to, and she is committed to a lot of people.”
As the newly-appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Walensky’s list of commitments has grown exponentially, a task friends and family of the Newton, Massachusetts resident agree she is uniquely prepared to handle.
Walensky is “a tireless champion of the core Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, saving life,” said Rabbi Michelle Robinson of Temple Emanuel in Newton, a Conservative congregation where Walensky and her family are members.
An influential scholar and clinician, Walensky had been Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. This alone is a colossal accomplishment. She was only the third head of the division in its 65-year-history at MGH, which insiders like to say stands for “Man’s Greatest Hospital.” (It was recognized as the #1 hospital in America by U.S. News & World Report in 2015 and in 2019 it was #2).
Now her job description includes leading the CDC’s response to the pandemic, improving the nation’s public health system, addressing vast health inequities and tackling collateral damage from the coronavirus in areas like suicide and substance use disorder.
“She may be at the CDC now, but we like to say she got her start at Camp Yavneh.” said Bil Zarch, executive director of Camp Yavneh, a Jewish overnight camp in New Hampshire where for many summers Walensky and her physician husband spent a week volunteering as camp doctors while their three sons were campers.
Actually, Walensky got her start at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, where she received her MD, followed by a Master of Public Health degree from the Harvard School of Public Health.
Boston has remained her home, and Temple Emanuel is her “spiritual home.” It was so supportive of her during the time MGH was deluged by COVID-19 patients that she’d sometimes come home on a Friday night to find a challah delivered to her house.
“There have been times when an order from the Butcherie has just shown up,” she said, referring to a local kosher market in a talk she gave about her career to the Temple’s Sisterhood not long before she was tapped for the CDC job.
She also spoke about how she’s been mesmerized by the field of infectious disease since her first year of medical school in 1991, the year basketball Hall of Famer Magic Johnson announced he had HIV. Back in 1995, during her first year of training after medical school, Baltimore had a lot of injection drug users and there wasn’t much that could be done for them. “We pronounced a lot of people dead of AIDS,” she said.
Yet that same year the first antiretroviral cocktail was approved by the FDA. “It was remarkable,” she said in her talk. “For the first time ever, we could tell people, ‘you might not die of this.’”
She carried this passion, optimism and conviction about the power of science back to Boston where her pioneering research with colleagues helped advance the national and global response to HIV/AIDS. Much of her work has been policy-oriented – using mathematical models, for example, to study how to best implement limited resources in HIV testing. Her work helped to change U.S. guidelines to promote more HIV testing.
When COVID-19 swept the country, she was ready for it, leading her hospital’s response to the pandemic, and authoring or co-authoring a slew of pandemic-related publications. (Her CV runs to 45 pages.) She served on Governor Charlie Baker’s Advisory Board for COVID-19. She appeared on CNN several times a week as a medical analyst and commentator.
Throughout all this, she told the Forward, she’s been guided by her belief that “science will lead us out of the pandemic.”
And Judaism has been her support. She told the Forward: “I’m motivated by the Jewish teachings of tikkun olam – literally ‘repair the world.’” “I have worked hard to teach this to my children –change for good, give to others and act socially and responsibly to make the world a better place. Tikkun Olam for me has been giving at the individual patient level – not to judge, not to react, but to give, to heal and to repair.”
Now she’s charged with healing and repairing at the federal level. She told the Forward about some of the multiple challenges she’s facing: “We must vaccinate hundreds of millions of people. We must get the public to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and avoid crowds and poorly-ventilated areas. We must improve our public health system to detect threats.” Still, she said, she is hopeful. “CDC science is the gold standard for our nation’s public health.”
Walensky’s former MGH colleagues are thrilled for her and not surprised she got the job. Dr. Stephen Calderwood — her mentor at MGH and the previous chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases – described her as highly organized and very caring, deeply committed to fixing things that are wrong in the world, and an excellent motivator. When COVID-19 struck and the hospital at one point had more than 350 COVID-19 patients, with 167 in ICU and most of them on ventilators, she found a way to support her staff with frequent Zoom meetings “for people to just share. What are your stresses? How is this impacting your family, your children?”
“She’s very human and very humble,” said Dr. Ingrid Bassett, Walensky’s first research mentee who has known her for nearly 20 years. “She’ll share in the same conversation that she’s testifying before Congress and having to pack up her kids for overnight camp.”
“She is someone who lives the essence of Judaism,” said Harvard Medical School’s Freedberg.
Her husband Loren Walensky is a physician at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Boston Children’s Hospital. The two met in medical school and have two sons in college, and one in high school.
“She has always been guided by, ‘What can I do today to help other people?’” her husband said. As a physician, her instinct is to determine “what do we need to do to make it better, and who will help me make a difference?”
“I’ve been watching her for 30 years,” he continued. “She views the mitzvah of Tikkun Olam as a guiding light in her career. This – her work at CDC – is that on a grand scale. There is lots of healing that needs to be done here.”
Linda Matchan is a Boston journalist and documentary filmmaker.
Dr. Rochelle Walensky takes over at CDC