Dr. Rachel Levine takes the reins for the state’s medical team in Harrisburg.
Five months ago, and at the nomination of Gov. Tom Wolf, Dr. Rachel Levine left her post as a physician specializing in pediatrics and young adult medicine at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital-Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to serve as the Commonwealth’s Physician General. In that role, Levine said in a recent interview, she will advise the Wolf administration on medical and public health issues.
Being tapped for the role “was very exciting,” said Levine, who has since relocated with her family to Harrisburg. While being transgender is an important part of her identity, she said, there is much more to her life than gender.
She said Wolf nominated her because of her credentials, serving as the vice-chair for clinical affairs in the department of pediatrics and chief of the division of adolescent medicine and eating disorders at the Hershey Medical Center; founding the Penn State Hershey Eating Disorders Program, which offers multidisciplinary treatment for children, adolescents and adults with eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa; and serving as liaison for the LGBT community for the office of diversity at the Penn State College of Medicine.
Wolf “didn’t shy away from nominating me” for being the first transgender person holding the position, Levine said.
Becoming Rachel was slow, she said: After 14 years at the Hershey Medical Center, Levine fully transitioned five years ago. Her colleagues, she recalled, were “wonderful, welcoming.”
Her identity transition served as the catalyst for change at Penn State, where the medical center expanded its nondiscrimination policy to include gender identity.
As someone whose career has long been linked to advocating for children and teenagers, Levine’s message to those who have doubts about revealing their gender expression and who may feel alone rings especially true.
“Our society, including our culture in Pennsylvania, has made progress” in creating an accepting and welcoming “environment,” Levine said. “This is my plea to young people to not despair — to not take their lives; things are getting better.”
That wasn’t the case during Levine’s childhood in Wakefield, Mass., having a Bar Mitzvah, going to Hebrew school and attending a conservative shul in the late 1960s and early ’70s, where the rabbi did not talk about LGBT issues.
“Overall, our society is open to different gender norms, not just in Jewish culture,” she said, adding that Reform Judaism is a space where acceptance is happening, as evidenced by her own mother’s synagogue in Harrisburg. Temple Ohev Shalom is headed by Rabbi Peter Kessler, who
identifies as gay and who is greatly respected in the community.
“Change takes time,” she said, “and it’s happening in my lifetime.”
For now, Levine is tackling what she said is the biggest public health issue in Pennsylvania: opiates, specifically heroin and prescription drug overdoses.
Similar to her advocacy around identity and eating disorders — mostly as it relates to young people — the abuse of opiates is a concern that needs to be addressed by focusing on both the body and the mind.
She also spoke about her interest in “the interface of medical and mental health,” highlighting the need to execute a handful of campaign tactics to lower the rising rate of opiate overdoses.
The subject of overdoses is somewhat new terrain for Levine, and she looks forward to broadening her advocacy in ways that affect the most amount of people.
One tactic is to sharpen the guidelines around prescribing medicines that are currently over-prescribed and abused. She wants to continue educating physicians and providers on how to best follow up with their patients and work with the ABC-MAP — Achieving Better Care by Monitoring All Prescriptions — program, a monitoring system that keeps track of all controlled substances in the state. She also plans to continue to facilitate state-of-the-art treatment and work to distribute Narcan, a drug that serves as an overdose antidote, which can be used by first responders such as paramedics and also prescribed to family members who have addicts in their family.