Why public health? WA Secretary of Health shares his reasons

So you might be wondering… Who is this guy John Wiesman, and why did Governor Inslee choose him to be the Secretary of Health? OK, maybe you’re not exactly wondering that.

In any case, I thought it would be helpful to share a little more about me — give you insight beyond public health stats and figures or that “get your flu shot” message. I want to share with you how public health became my passion.

I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin called Horicon. I was raised experiencing a “healthy community.” I played kickball with friends and enjoyed neighborhood barbecues. Like many communities back then, we didn’t lock our doors. People knew each other, looked out for each other, and kept an eye on the children to help make sure they made good choices.

I had six siblings, and growing up as one of seven taught me patience, sharing, and the importance of working together. It also instilled within me a great admiration of my parents. You see, I was very fortunate. I grew up in a house where I always knew my parents loved me. They sacrificed much for their kids, but I never knew that until I got older. I still remember my mom being up into the wee hours of the morning, sewing and making clothes for us kids. Mom and Dad set boundaries for us.

This experience growing up in a house with unconditional love, encouragement, and an expectation that we would continue our education led me to understand the importance of healthy starts on life. And I recognize that many have less supportive and less positive childhoods. My passion for public health is born, in part, by a desire to help as many kids have healthy starts in healthy communities as possible.

Fast forward to 1983. I just graduated from college, and read a feature in TIME magazine about disease detectives and how they solve public health mysteries. That article captivated me and made me aware of epidemiology — the study of disease and injury patterns over time — and the opportunity for prevention even without knowing the cause of an epidemic. Two years later I applied to public health school.

During my graduate school training, a blood test was developed to detect the virus, HIV, that causes AIDS. During an internship, I conducted HIV counseling and testing and helped open one of the first public HIV testing sites. Here I heard people’s fears of HIV and the stigma others put on them because they are gay, an injection drug user, or have HIV. Here the reality of discrimination and isolation as public health issues came to light for me. So did my own sexuality as I understood that my feeling “other” for so much of my life was that I am a gay man. This work helped me come out.

Now, my husband, Ted, and I have celebrated 30 years of being together, marrying 8 years ago. Getting married is something I never dreamed would happen in my lifetime. And it’s important to my health. It’s important to belong and have access to the institutions and rights others have. Equality promotes good health for all. Equality is essential to healthy people and healthy communities.

So, public health is personal. It’s about people’s everyday lives. And it is my desire that we now use this platform to share with you the stories of public health. We will do that by highlighting the work of public health workers and the stories of people that are affected by public health — which, by the way, is all of us — separating fact from fiction and talking about what we don’t know, the mysteries we have yet to solve.

I hope you follow us and join the conversation.

— John

John Wiesman, DrPH, MPH, was appointed secretary of health by Governor Jay Inslee and joined the Department of Health in April 2013. He’s an accomplished transformational leader with more than 22 years of local public health experience and focuses on whole systems approaches to improving health. Full bio

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