My Economy

How one primary care doctor found her role in the fight against COVID-19

Maria Hollenhorst May 3, 2021
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A sign in support of healthcare workers in Boston, Massachusetts on April 04, 2020. “I know this sounds really strange, but I can think of fewer happier times in my career,” said Dr. Suzanne Koven, a writer and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
My Economy

How one primary care doctor found her role in the fight against COVID-19

Maria Hollenhorst May 3, 2021
Heard on:
A sign in support of healthcare workers in Boston, Massachusetts on April 04, 2020. “I know this sounds really strange, but I can think of fewer happier times in my career,” said Dr. Suzanne Koven, a writer and physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images
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The past 14 months have been particularly tough on health care workers. A recent Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that roughly three in 10 of them have considered leaving their profession as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Suzanne Koven, a primary care physician and writer in residence at Massachusetts General Hospital, joined the fight against COVID-19 voluntarily. 

“Last spring, at my hospital, like hospitals all around the world, there was a very rapid mobilization of the COVID effort,” she said. “Sports medicine became a COVID clinic and pediatric units became COVID units, and so forth.” 

Around this time, Koven received an email seeking volunteers to work in a COVID-screening clinic. 

“I’m in a stage in my career, where when emails come around announcing new initiatives and new opportunities, I tend to delete them,” she said. “I thought: This is a younger woman’s game, and I’ll be better able to support my colleagues if I see patients virtually from home.”

But that decision didn’t last. 

“For the next 48 hours, I just kind of paced around the house, as if I had a pebble in my shoe” she said. “And so I went into my deleted folder and I retrieved the email, and I signed up to work in the COVID clinic.” 

Koven published an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine last May about how her medical training led to this decision. She continued volunteering in the clinic through the spring and early summer of 2020. 

“There was such a sense of purpose, there was such a sense of camaraderie. I know this sounds really strange, but I can think of fewer happier times in my career,” she said. 

According to a count by the Guardian and Kaiser Health News, more than 3,600 U.S. healthcare workers died last year from COVID-19 related causes. 

“I don’t want to exaggerate my bravery or my heroism,” Koven said. “I wasn’t putting myself at the kind of risk that others were.”

For her, volunteering in the COVID clinic wasn’t about making a brave choice, it was about being herself. 

“For 35 years, when I’ve been asked to help, I’ve helped,” she said. “Paradoxically, or maybe not so paradoxically, I felt much safer and much more at ease with my colleagues, in the hospital, than I had felt sitting on the sidelines, worrying.”

Dr. Suzanne Koven is the author of a new book of essays called “Letter to a Young Female Physician: Notes from a Medical Life.”

Correction (May 4, 2021): A previous version of this story misstated Dr. Koven’s medical specialty. The text has been corrected.

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