The doctor is out

Wendy and Carol Blenning take their brand new puppy, Kai, to the vet.


Wendy and Carol Blenning work together to advocate for LGBTQ health

By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly


It’s not uncommon for healthcare professionals to say they chose their line of work “to help people.” For many, this desire is fulfilled by simply showing up for work and providing patient/client care. Others, recognizing the health disparities faced by marginalized populations, step up to the challenge of changing the entire system.

Partners Wendy and Carol Blenning have made it their life’s work to bring a social justice sensibility to their respective careers as a licensed clinical social worker and family practice medical doctor.

“I think it’s a social justice issue,” says Carol, 49, a physician at OHSU’s Richmond Clinic. “I feel like everybody has a right to have respectful quality care.”

Wendy, 55, is a licensed clinical social worker who recently closed her private practice in order to find a work situation that is “more relational.” Like Carol, she considers her work a form of activism — something that’s been in her blood since childhood.

“My activism started when I was quite young,” Wendy, 55, says. “When school starts on the most holy day of the Jewish year, you quickly learn the personal is political.”

Though she’s not currently practicing social work, she provides vital support to Carol’s advocacy efforts, drawing on a long history of working with and advocating for underserved communities, including abuse survivors, people of color, HIV-positive clients, and LGBTQ individuals.

“We consult a lot together,” Wendy says, adding that patient confidentiality is always maintained. “I know more about the trans stuff; I’ve been doing it longer. I give Carol ideas about dealing with patients, the emotional components.”

That said, Carol is no stranger to providing care for underserved communities. She has primarily worked with folks on the margins, including HIV-positive, Latino, undocumented, and queer and trans patients.

“In my family we were always encouraged to help people out,” Carol says. Her father’s sister died of leukemia when Carol was 13, inspiring her to go into medicine. She considered cancer research and pediatrics, but ultimately decided to go where she could help the broadest range of people.

“I didn’t want to exclude anybody, so went into family medicine,” Carol says. “It’s definitely right for me. I’m a broad generalist thinker.”

Far from excluding anyone, Carol is going above and beyond to make sure everyone is included. In addition to providing primary care for her clinic patients, Carol regularly provides trainings and workshops on providing culturally-competent care for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and especially transgender individuals.

Thanks in part to Wendy’s encouragement, Carol now gives an annual two-hour talk on LGBTQ issues to second year medical students at OHSU, regularly presents at the Meaningful Care Conference, and provides extra-curricular training for students and colleagues working at the Richmond Clinic.

“Next month I’m doing cross department training focused on trans care in primary care setting,” Carol says. “I know people want to know more, but they don’t know how. It’s more like attitude and a culture shift.”

Carol is also working to shift attitudes as a member of OHSU’s Cultural Advocacy Team, an interdepartmental group founded in 2009 to lead diversity and inclusion efforts.

“The cool thing about [CAT] is it cuts across all of OHSU healthcare, including people who are doing nursing, janitorial stuff. We have the hospitality people who greet you when you walk in the hospital,” Carol says.

That diversity allows the group to look at the experience of patients — and employees — from a variety of angles. One of the team’s projects is supporting the creation of employee affinity groups like OHSU Pride (active since 2007).

“It kind of helps the management have a sense of the whole community,” Carol says. “You have to be really intentional about addressing disparities and not just treating everyone the same.”

But her involvement in the Cultural Advocacy Team isn’t the only way Carol is helping make OHSU a friendlier place for LGBTQ folks. Recently, with Wendy’s assistance, Carol helped the hospital make the necessary changes to earn it high marks from the Human Rights Campaign’s Healthcare Equality Index.

OHSU is ranked as a “leader” for the first time in the 2011 HRC index and one of just 27 respondents to meet all seven measures of equality. The previous year, OHSU only met three of the seven standards.

Among the index criteria: Patients’ Bill of Rights and/or non-discrimination policy includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression” or “gender identity;” explicitly inclusive visitation policy grants same-sex couples equal visitation access as different-sex couples and next of kin and grants same-sex parents equal visitation access as different-sex parents for their minor children; provide cultural competency training addressing LGBT healthcare issues; and equal employment opportunity policy includes “sexual orientation” and “gender identity.”

As a former member of HRC’s Board of Governors, Wendy offered insight that helped OHSU overcome its difficulties in “making the grade,” Carol says.

Carol also recently joined the board of TransActive, a Portland-based organization serving transgender and gender nonconforming children, youth, and their families and allies.

Wendy says that having an MD of the board helps lend credibility.

“It is important for [medical doctors] to step up. People don’t show up to trainings unless an MD is doing it,” Wendy says. To the doctors not currently involved in LGBTQ advocacy she says: “We need you; we need your power.”

Despite the sway those two letters hold, Carol remains down-to-earth.

“My style is more, ‘don’t wear a white coat, go by your first name,’” she says in response to Wendy talking up her credentials.

Degrees and accomplishments aside, what matters most, the Blennings say, is simply taking action and helping others to do the same.

“It really is up to all of us to do the little things we can do every day,” Wendy says. “And teaching people how to fish. Everybody needs to know this stuff.”