A Jewish woman is the first openly transgender person to hold the position of physician general in Pennsylvania.
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 post, Levine said she will advise the governor’s 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 Levine’s identity, she said, there is much more to her life than gender.
She said Wolf nominated her because of her medical credentials, which include 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 Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital-Milton S. 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 the liaison for the LGBTQ community for the office of diversity at the Penn State College of Medicine.
But, Wolf “didn’t shy away from nominating me [for being the first transgender person holding the position],” Levine also said.
Her transition to Rachel was slow, she said, and after 14 years at the Hershey Medical Center, Levine fully transitioned five years ago. Her colleagues, she said, were “wonderful, welcoming.”
Her identity, she said, served as the catalyst for change at Penn State, where the medical center expanded its nondiscriminating policy to include gender identity.
As an advocate for young people in particular, she wants to send out a plea to those who have doubts about revealing their gender expression and who may feel alone.
“Our society, including our culture in Pennsylvania, has made progress — [creating an] accepting but actually [also] welcoming environment,” Levine said. “This is my plea to young people to not despair — to not take their lives; things are getting better.”
As a Jewish youth growing up in a Jewish household in Wakefield, Mass., having a bar mitzvah, attending Hebrew school and attending a conservative shul, Levine said the rabbi did not talk about LGBTQ issues. It was the late 1960s, early 1970s, she said, and things are only now getting better.
“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, even if not in more Orthodox spaces, where constituents may be “less open to variation of gender.”
Her mom’s shul in Harrisburg, Temple Ohev Sholom, is headed by Rabbi Peter Kessler, who identifies as gay and who is greatly respected in the community and by Levine and her family.
“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 she segments into both the body and the mind.
“[I’m] interested in the interface of medical and mental health,” she said, calling out the need to execute a handful of campaign tactics to lower the opiate overdoses.
One tactic is to sharpen the guidelines around prescribing medicines that are currently over-prescribed and abused. She would also like 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 prescription drug 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 a new drug that serves as an overdose antidote, which can be used by first responders such as paramedics and prescribed to family members who have addicts in their family.
The subject of overdose is somewhat new terrain for Levine, and she looks forward to broadening her advocacy in ways that affect the most amount of people.
Bee Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.