CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky has tapped Mary Wakefield — an Obama administration veteran and former nurse — to helm a major revamp of the sprawling agency and its multibillion-dollar budget. Making the changes will require winning over wary career CDC scientists, combative members of Congress, and a general public that in many cases has stopped looking to the agency for guidance.
Other former colleagues said Wakefield’s experience as a nurse, congressional staffer, policy wonk, and administrator give her the perspective and leadership tools to rise to the occasion, even as they acknowledged the magnitude of the job ahead.
Walensky has stressed that, as part of the reset, she wants the CDC to give Americans clear, accurate, and timely guidance on community health threats.
“I am confident that the appointment of Mary Wakefield will be instrumental in accomplishing our goals to modernize and optimize CDC,” Walensky said in a written statement. “It is clear that Mary is an action-oriented leader who can lead effective change.”
Wakefield’s first day on the job was in mid-August. She declined to speak to KHN for this piece, but those who know her painted a rich picture of her management philosophy and style.
NYU’s Sullivan-Marx said Wakefield’s experience as a nurse makes her well suited to solve the complex set of problems facing the CDC, which she compared to a patient in need of stabilization.
“When you look at someone in a bed in intensive care, all you see are beeps and lines and monitors going off — people moving in and out like a train station,” said Sullivan-Marx. “The nurse is central to that for the patient, pulling all of that together.”
Sullivan-Marx also said Wakefield’s perspective as a front-line health care worker could help the CDC better understand how clinicians will receive and interpret its guidelines and recommendations.
Former HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called Wakefield a “change agent” who was able to win the trust of HRSA staff members, many of whom are full-time employees, not political appointees.
“Folks understood that they were there before she came in and they’d be there after she left,” Sebelius said. “They had to be convinced that she was a good leader and they were going to follow her. That’s pretty significant, that she did so well in that agency.”
Details about changes coming at the CDC are still trickling out, though top brass have said they’ll need the support of Congress to implement them.
“She’ll be keenly aware of the role of the members who care deeply about these issues,” Burke said.
“I think she’s uniquely positioned to understand how you navigate that relationship,” Burke said of Wakefield.
Multiple former employees pointed to what Gibbens, from the University of North Dakota, characterized as Wakefield’s “infatigable amount of energy.” He said it wasn’t uncommon for him to arrive at work to phone messages she’d left him at 4:30 in the morning.
He described Wakefield as someone who knows “when somebody is trying to play her.” But he also said she doesn’t take herself too seriously. He recalled a kitschy animatronic talking fish on her office wall, a nod to her love of fishing. And the time she declined to fly on Air Force Two from Washington, D.C., to North Dakota, choosing to take a commercial flight “like a regular person.”
“She said, ‘You gotta be really careful with that stuff. You don’t want to get used to that,'” Gibbens recalled.
Much like the CDC in the current moment, in 2005 Wakefield found herself at a possible turning point. That year, Wakefield’s brother and two of his children were killed in a car accident that seriously injured her sister-in-law and young nephew.
“Health policy as a focal area of my work before, now felt of very little consequence,” Wakefield wrote at the time in the Journal of Forensic Nursing.
“They acknowledged my family’s loss and put their support behind legislation that can affect the lives of children of other families who may have a chance at survival,” Wakefield wrote. “Public policy is important — isn’t it?”
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.