"It enriches the experience of this crazy thing we all do"

Dr. Suzanne Koven

Dr. Suzanne Koven

Dr. Suzanne Koven is writer-in-residence at Mass General

Ten years ago, Dr. Suzanne Koven started a reading group at Mass General for clinical and non-clinical staff. They read literature and poetry and met in the hospital cafeteria, discussing themes that touched on their everyday lives as people working in healthcare. “Angels in America” by Tony Kushner, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, A Burnt Out Case by Graham Greene.

The group was wildly popular.

Today, Koven is writer-in-residence at Mass General, a position that is less unusual than it may first sound as the number of writers-in-resident at hospitals across the U.S. and in the UK gently swells. Some focus on working directly with patients to share their narrative journeys through expressive writing, but Koven’s focus is on caregivers. A body of research supports the health benefits of story telling for patients and practitioners alike.

A primary care physician with an MFA in non-fiction writing and a respectable writing career, Koven didn’t necessarily see the two careers fused. That changed after her division chief caught word of her reading group and the enthusiasm it was engendering with staff. He wanted more.

“He was very conscious of burnout and retention of physicians and employees and said to me, ‘Gee, it would be great if more people could experience this,’” Koven said. He tasked an employee in staff development to work with Koven on a plan – and the writer-in-residence position was born. Koven designed the position, coming up with three main focuses: (1) She would continue to do her own writing and develop a narrative voice in medicine much in the way of physicians who develop an academic voice; (2) she would take the concept of literature and “weaponize” it so she could take it into other practices during their regular meetings, while continuing to run her reading groups; and (3) she would mentor hospital staff interested in writing.

Koven found no shortage of aspiring writers in the halls of medicine, unsurprising considering the vibrant legacy of MD-writers such as Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams, Somerset Maugham and Walker Percy.

Koven’s first two-year term started two years ago, and was just renewed, as she continues to expand and improve her approach, while working with other institutions to bring literature more intimately and actively into the field.

“There’s a big appetite for this thing,” she said.  “When I started, one apprehension I had is that I thought it would be hard for me to explain what I was doing. But it turned out to be very easy to explain. It’s this longing to communicate and plumb issues of medicine through the refractive lens of literature. It turned out to be an easy sell.”

Koven says that the profession of medicine takes people who are socially apt and isolates them within very hierarchical structures and boundaries – and yet the everyday stories in medicine are rich with a pathos that begs to be shared. This tension creates a longing for connection and understanding that literature can mine.

“One of the insights I got from doing the reading group is that people are dying to talk,” she says. “And literature gives you permission to talk. Literature creates a safe space. It also helps with team building and breaking down barriers with groups in conflict. It’s a place to talk about things that are more than superficial.”

Koven chooses texts that draw out broader human themes then asks questions that invite people to speak from clinical and personal experiences. Participants talk about the book, but also parallels they might experience in their own lives and profession.

“It just enriches the experience of this crazy thing we all do, dealing with people in these very intense and emotional moments,” she says. “That’s been for me an exhilarating aspect of doing this work.”

If you’re interested in connecting with Dr. Koven or learning more about the reading groups and discussions she leads, go to www.suzannekoven.com 

In honor of the marriage of literature and medicine, we share this winning poem of the Hippocrates Open International Prize for Poetry and Medicine, by Harvard poet and physician Rafael Campo.

Morbidity and Mortality Rounds

By Rafael Campo

Forgive me, body before me, for this.

Forgive me for my bumbling hands, unschooled

in how to touch: I meant to understand

what fever was, not love. Forgive me for

my stare, but when I look at you, I see

myself laid bare. Forgive me, body, for

what seems like calculation when I take

a breath before I cut you with my knife,

because the cancer has to be removed.

Forgive me for not telling you, but I’m

no poet. Please forgive me, please. Forgive

my gloves, my callous greeting, my unease—

you must not realize I just met death

again. Forgive me if I say he looked

impatient. Please, forgive me my despair,

which once seemed more like recompense. Forgive

my greed, forgive me for not having more

to give you than this bitter pill. Forgive:

for this apology, too late, for those

like me whose crimes might seem innocuous

and yet whose cruelty was obvious.

Forgive us for these sins. Forgive me, please,

for my confusing heart that sounds so much

like yours. Forgive me for the night, when I

sleep too, beside you under the same moon.

Forgive me for my dreams, for my rough knees,

for giving up too soon. Forgive me, please,

for losing you, unable to forgive.