LeBlanc appointed new director of student health and wellness

Veteran college physician says health habits adopted in college can last a lifetime


The examination room is not the only place to treat patients, said Cheri LeBlanc, MD. She is the director of student health and wellness, a newly created position, at the Habif Health and Wellness Center at Washington University in St. Louis. LeBlanc wants to reach students at the gym, in the dining hall and in the classroom.

“I want to bring the message of good health anywhere where students are,” said LeBlanc. “It is so important for health centers to be connected with other parts of the university.”

LeBlanc recently arrived here with her husband, Azad Bonni, MD, PhD, head of the Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at the School of Medicine. She has worked her entire career in college health, starting 25 years ago as staff physician at McGill University in Montreal.

“It was a happy accident,” said LeBlanc. “I thought I’d spend a few years in the college health center while my husband completed his residency, but I fell in love with student health. I love being a part of a university community and taking care of students at such a critical time in their lives.”

The Record talked to LeBlanc about the health challenges facing college students, her aspirations for her new role and what it’s like to treat pre-medical students.

What do you like about college health?

If you’re in college health, you get it. If you’re not in college health, you might think student health providers simply treat students with sore throats who want to hear about birth control. But we see everything in college health from mental illness to chronic physical disease. There is also a real opportunity to educate students in ways that will impact them for the rest of their lives. They are out on their own for the first time, and they need to learn how to navigate the health system, how to fill a prescription and how to take care of themselves.

What exactly will your role be here?

Half of my time, I’m in the clinic seeing patients. I could not not do that. But at the same time, after 25 years in college health, I can appreciate the impact we can have on someone’s long-term health with the right intervention at the right time. I wanted to do more with health education and health promotion. My goal is to be part of the community and to find ways that health services can work with other departments to improve overall health and wellness. For instance, academic stress is high on the list of student concerns. So how do you address that? You can have patients come in and teach them mindfulness and ways to reduce stress. But for a variety of reasons, many more students don’t come. So, we can also see if other factors in our community contribute to stress and if there are ways to change that. We can find resources in the community, such as Cornerstone for instance, that can complement what we do here and try to get that message to as many students as possible.

In the future, I also would like to broaden the scope of the Health Promotion Department, bringing the message of health and wellness to the entire Washington University community. Healthy Campus 2020 is a program that has measurable objectives for improving health for students and staff. There are many campuses around the country that are adopting this kind of programming, and it would be wonderful for Washington University to lead in this effort.

You have a strong interest in sexual assault and eating disorders. What are the best ways to address these issues?

You can’t be a health provider on a college campus and not be concerned about those issues. Eating-disorder patients are complex and fascinating to take care of. They can be your most frustrating and your most rewarding patients. One has to take a team approach to this challenging problem — dietician, primary care and mental health providers all working together because eating disorders represent a multifaceted problem. Of course, we also try to prevent students from going down this path in the first place. That’s why it’s also important to work with student groups like Reflections, which just hosted “Love Your Body Week.”

Sexual assault has also been an early interest of mine. I try to compassionately take care of these students and let them know that what happened to them was a terrible thing and to let them know that now they have control over what happens next.

Despite an array of programs, the sexual assault rates here are consistent with colleges across the country. Can anything be done to change the culture?

I watched The Date the other day and I believe that type of programming — students talking to students — is so important. And yet the rates haven’t changed. Why is that? Do we all say, “I don’t know. Let’s give up.” Or do you look at the data and explore new ways to address the issue? That’s what’s so exciting about bystander intervention training. It’s a very different approach to empower students to prevent sexual assault. It is new and becoming the standard. That just took someone to say, “What we are doing isn’t working. How can we change?”

Cheri LeBlanc, MD

Title: Director of Student Health and Wellness
Home town: Wallaceburg, Ontario, Canada
Medical school: University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario
Recent appointments: Staff physician at Boston University, Simmons College and Northeastern University
Family: Married to Azad Bonni, MD, PhD, head of Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine
Three children: Juvan, Dilaun and Kaylaun

What is one of the most important qualities you bring to your practice?

Compassion is so vital. When a student tells you she was raped, or when someone comes in thinking she has a urinary tract infection and you have to tell her she has herpes, it’s so important to let them know you understand,] and that you are there to help them through it. I can’t see every patient in 10 minutes, I have to be there and allow them to cry.

You had a long career in Boston. Why did you decide to come to St. Louis?

I was so impressed with Alan (Glass, MD, assistant vice chancellor and director of student health services). The fact that he is in charge of student health services says great things about the university. And the fact we share the same goals and vision of college health allowed me to be really supportive of my husband’s decision to come here. There are a good number of campuses where the counseling center and the health center are in two different places. It is so important to have an integrated approach when treating students, and it is difficult to do that when the centers are separate. You need that close collaboration.

Your husband also is a doctor. What are dinner conversations like in your home?

We have the kids rule the dinner table and talk about their day and what matters to them. We have lively discussions about politics, culture and sports. (LeBlanc keeps a Red Sox cup in her office.) Although we do not spend much time discussing science or medicine at the dinner table, we appreciate that the research that takes place in my husband’s lab and labs around the country is vital. My husband is a neurologist and a molecular neurobiologist. His lab is interested in understanding how neurons form synapses and connect with each other during brain development; they are also interested in the molecular basis of autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disability.

Your oldest son is a student at Boston University. How does having a son in college change your perspective as a college physician?

I will talk to a patient and say, “I’m not your mother, I’m not going to judge you.” But I am my son’s mother. My work in student health has, I hope, prepared me to be a better parent to my son. I’ve tried to speak openly to him about sex and alcohol, issues that are prevalent on a college campus. I want my son to feel comfortable coming to me with any concerns he might have. At the same time, I want to be sure he knows where my husband and I stand stand on these issues and to teach him how to advocate for himself, for example, in the face of peer pressure. Occasionally, I see students who are struggling because in addition to taking on the academic challenges, they have to learn for the first time how to take care of themselves. So, as parents, we have a responsibility to prepare our children for their journey to college in more ways than one.

Some of your patients are future doctors. Do they ever come in here thinking they know as much as you?

Yep, that happens. They are some of my favorite patients and you can learn from them. But sometimes they’ll come in practicing medicine — “This is what I have, just give me a Z-pack.”