December 13th, 2020

Brush with Greatness — Rochelle Walensky to Head CDC

There’s an overused expression that, despite its familiarity, really does describe some people perfectly. It’s when you say someone “lights up a room.”

My ID colleague and friend Dr. Rochelle Walensky certainly stands as a prime example. Right from the moment we first met during her interviews for ID fellowship in the late 1990s, I noticed Rochelle gave off this remarkable positive energy — a mix of enthusiasm, intelligence, and attentiveness that’s immediately obvious to all.

Here’s someone special, one inevitably thinks when meeting her. Here’s someone who listens and can get things done.

Of course, I write this soon after she’s been named the next head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a position she takes after 3 distinguished years as Chief of ID at Massachusetts General Hospital.

And while this move came as a surprise even to those who work closely with her — well played, Rochelle! — once the announcement became public, the response from the ID community has been nothing short of celebratory. I’m far from alone in holding this high opinion of her.

What can we expect from our new CDC director? If the track record from her work to date is any indication, let’s look forward to the following:

  • Skillful analysis of data. She’s a highly accomplished researcher in disease modeling, having published nearly 300 papers, many quite influential, along with more in the popular press. And she loves numbers. CDC generates lots of numbers. She’ll most definitely fight COVID-19 with “science and facts.”
  • Effective communication. A particular strength is her ability to convey complex information in a way that is understandable to people outside her field. Disease models may seem like the quintessential “black box” of computer spreadsheets and databases, but in Rochelle’s words, they are logical and clear.
  • Generous leadership. A winner of several mentorship awards at Harvard, she will credit her team for their accomplishments. Don’t be surprised if we’re re-introduced to some spectacular talent at CDC — which will once again have a prominent voice. Welcome back!
  • A focus on equity. Her colleague Dr. Robert Goldstein summed it up perfectly: “She approaches every part of her work understanding that, to do this well, we have to think about those that are most vulnerable and those that are most marginalized in our system.”
  • A great doctor and a compassionate human being. When she was a first-year ID fellow, she was concerned about a young man from Africa who had been admitted with malaria and discharged home. Now, first-year ID fellows are incredibly busy; nonetheless, she took extra time in her clinic to see him in follow-up until he recovered.

Allow me to linger for a moment on this last one, the compassion piece. Rochelle made the extra effort to ensure her patient — new to this country, feverish from malaria, afraid — had good care. This is what good doctors, and good human beings, instinctively do. I have no doubt that had she chosen clinical care over research as her primary focus, she would have excelled in this domain as well.

And isn’t that human touch still so glaringly absent from our national response to the pandemic? Where’s the compassion? The appreciation for the sadness and sacrifice?

Rest assured, with Rochelle heading the CDC, that will soon be clearly evident, as  she’s joining a distinguished group on the COVID-19 response known for their talent, character, and achievements.

Now, skeptics could read this post, and think, come on — nobody is this great. There must be something Dr. Rochelle Walensky doesn’t do well.

Ok, here it is.

She has lousy handwriting.

Nobody’s perfect.

6 Responses to “Brush with Greatness — Rochelle Walensky to Head CDC”

  1. Omar Sued says:

    I am so happy Rochelle was elected to run CDC! I only met her briefly, when I asked some questions at the CROI and at other conferences. I was ever surprised by her generosity, kindness, and humility, and how bright she is. Happy for your country. Sure she will have too much work to do, and too much things to rebuild.

  2. Phil Bolduc says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Paul; I was elated to hear this news last week!

  3. Peg Nelson says:

    Well said, Paul!
    It is easy to be excited about Rochelle leading the CDC when one has been lucky enough to see her in action. Thanks for laying out a range of talents that will help her meet the challenge.

  4. Cyril Gaultier says:

    I am beyond supportive of her nomination. I attended several of the HIV grand rounds at MGH and was so impressed by her brilliance and knowledge.
    Well deserved and a leader of the CDC I can trust

  5. Mauro Schechter says:

    I’m really pleased Rochelle will lead the CDC. As you so well put it, Paul, we are all in need of a human touch after so many years of reckless disregard for compassion (and for science).

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HIV Information: Author Paul Sax, M.D.

Paul E. Sax, MD

Contributing Editor

NEJM Journal Watch
Infectious Diseases

Biography | Disclosures | Summaries

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