Let­ter to a Young Female Physi­cian: Notes from a Med­ical Life

Suzanne Koven

  • Review
By – November 22, 2021

As Suzanne Koven writes in her intro­duc­tion, Let­ters to a Young Female Physi­cian takes its title from an 1855 col­lec­tion called Let­ters to a Young Physi­cian Just Enter­ing Upon Prac­tice. Sim­i­lar col­lec­tions have been pub­lished by oth­er — notably — male authors through the years. But when Koven start­ed her med­ical degree three decades ago, such let­ters were silent on nav­i­gat­ing the par­tic­u­lars of her career: being a moth­er, a wife, and a woman as well as a doc­tor. So, Koven penned a let­ter her­self, writ­ing down all that she wished she had known when she start­ed. That mis­sive was the gen­e­sis of this book, a col­lec­tion of two-dozen essays, both auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal and philo­soph­i­cal, as well as flat-out funny.

While Koven’s father was a physi­cian, it wasn’t obvi­ous that she would fol­low in his foot­steps, as there were few women role mod­els at the time. She majored in Eng­lish in col­lege, but even­tu­al­ly enrolled in med­ical school and went into a fam­i­ly prac­tice at Mass­a­chu­setts Gen­er­al Hos­pi­tal and a mem­ber of the fac­ul­ty at Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Med­ical School in Boston. Over time, Koven cir­cled back to her love of the writ­ten word, com­plet­ing a master’s degree in lit­er­a­ture and cre­ative writ­ing at Harvard’s Exten­sion School. This mor­phed into her lead­er­ship in a pro­gram bring­ing human­i­ties into work­places, in which she taught class­es on lit­er­a­ture and med­i­cine for physi­cians. She is cur­rent­ly the inau­gur­al writer-in-res­i­dence at Mass­a­chu­setts General.

The essays in this book mix togeth­er Koven’s expe­ri­ences from child­hood through med­ical school, in the hos­pi­tal and at home. They describe the often unclear path a doc­tor must tread when it is her own child or her own par­ent who needs med­ical care. Koven’s writ­ing is hon­est, engag­ing, and frank. She does not shy away from her own short­com­ings — be they with her own self-per­cep­tion, her strained rela­tion­ship with her father, her strug­gle with weight, or her refuge in humor — but rather con­tex­tu­al­izes them in light of all that she’s expe­ri­enced through her years as a doc­tor. Koven gleans lessons from patients that are just as impor­tant as those learned in a class­room, the kind of lessons that apply well beyond the exam room or the hos­pi­tal, and extend much more gen­er­al­ly to any­one who cares deeply for oth­ers. This love­ly col­lec­tion of essays has just one flaw: the title sug­gests that the audi­ence is young, female physi­cians. But the real­i­ty is that this book is for any­one who strives for a life filled with hope and connection.

Juli Berwald Ph.D. is a sci­ence writer liv­ing in Austin, Texas and the author of Spine­less: the Sci­ence of Jel­ly­fish and the Art of Grow­ing a Back­bone. Her book on the future of coral will be pub­lished in 2021.

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