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A return to Morse, a commitment to advocacy, and selfies at the lipstick

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2015 - Spring


On a recent end-of-summer afternoon, Alice Chen, M.D., felt flashbacks as she rounded the stucco wall outside the Morse College master’s house, where she lived as an undergraduate at Yale. She graduated in 2001. “I have so many wonderful memories of having brownies here at master’s tea,” Chen said, to laughter. About 25 men and women listened and nibbled on crostini with olive tapenade, mini phyllo cups stuffed with bright red-orange caviar, and chocolate mousse cups topped with raspberries.

“Yale was really a formative part of the work I do today,” Chen told her audience at the tea, as she sat opposite Morse master Catherine Panter-Brick, D.Phil. Her work today is advocacy, as executive director of Doctors for America, an organization of more than 16,000 physicians and medical students working to ensure that everyone has access to affordable, high quality health care.

Chen was in New Haven to accompany her husband of just three weeks at that time, Vivek Murthy, M.D. ’03, M.B.A. ’03, the nation’s surgeon general, as he gave talks around the Yale campus. Although they overlapped at Yale for three years (she at Yale College, he at the School of Medicine), they didn’t meet until they became active in Doctors for Obama, which Murthy co-founded.

Chen’s story unfolded through her answers to questions from Panter-Brick and the students, several of whom plan careers in medicine. When Chen arrived at Yale from her native California in 1997, she was, she said with a laugh, “very unique‒a short Chinese-American female who played the violin and piano.” Like many of her classmates and suitemates, she wanted to do something interesting. At the Freshman Extracurricular Bazaar, she signed up for “literally 100 things.” Her undergraduate major was molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, but she wrapped in three years of Russian, chorus, orchestra, Chinese calligraphy, and her very first protest‒a march on the New Haven Green against land mines. After Yale, she enrolled in Weill Cornell Medical College. As she finished her internal medicine residency at the University of California, Los Angeles, Chen wondered how she could make a difference beyond caring for patients one-on-one. Her epiphany came as she prepared discharge instructions for a woman leaving the hospital after a two-week stay. The mother of six and wife of a local pastor had no health insurance. “I remember thinking that these are people who are serving their community, and yet we are not able to give them the health care they need.”

Chen’s advocacy began when she signed an open letter from Doctors for Obama calling for health care reform. After Obama’s election, the group changed its name to Doctors for America and campaigned in support of the Affordable Care Act. “We built this movement where we all learned together how to advocate,” Chen said. The year was 2009. Members wrote op-eds and letters to the editor, and contacted their members of Congress. One day the White House called. “They said, ’The momentum on health care reform is lagging and we really need some help. Can you bring in a doctor from all 50 states to the White House to stand with the President in the Rose Garden to say that the nation needs health care reform?’ … Us? Really?” The group flew the doctors in. Her organization’s timing, coupled with growing political momentum, collided into a perfect storm of enthusiasm, and, in March 2010 a sea change within health care policy happened. Congress passed the Affordable Care Act. “At the time we thought ’Shoot! Change is satisfying,’ ” Chen said. Still, she said, much work remained. For starters‒giant myths surrounding Obamacare had begun to circulate. In 2012 in Oklahoma and Alabama rumors were circulating that those who signed up for Obamacare would have chips implanted in their arms so the government could track them and seize their guns. (“I mean, really?!” Chen said.) How to face down swirling rumors with virtually no media budget? A bus tour from the Republication National Convention in Tampa, Fla., to the Democratic one in Charlotte, N.C. The media ate it up. “We had tons of fun as well,” Chen said. “It felt like a two-week slumber party.”

Chen’s message was this: No one needs permission or membership in an organization to advocate for a cause. “If you are interested in something, write about it, blog about it, call your radio station, go to your city hall,” she said. “There are a lot of things you can do without asking for a path forward from an organization. If you want to do something, just do it!”

The moderator checked her watch. Time to go. Chen and Murthy, who was sitting in the back of the living room at master’s tea, had a train to catch. Of course, the students wanted selfies with this Morse alum. Where should they gather for a photo? They could take pictures inside… or… “Let’s go to the lipstick!!” Chen said, referring to the iconic sculpture in the center of Morse College.

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