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August 2012 Bulletin: Women in Medicine

Healing From the Broken Places:
Turning a personal weakness into a professional strength

Suzanne Koven MD

Suzanne Koven MD

A little over a year ago I received an e-mail from Dr. Julie Silver, Chief Editor of Books for Harvard Health Publications, with an intriguing proposition. HHP was partnering with the bestselling Chicken Soup for the Soul series to produce books in which doctors would provide medical information about health issues, complemented with stories by Chicken Soup contributors. Julie asked if I might be interested in writing a book for women over 50 about weight loss and fitness to be titled: Say Hello To A Better Body.

Would I be interested?!
It seemed like one of those moments when the universe aligns, goes shopping, and picks out the perfect gift. At the time, I was involved in several different activities, all of which I enjoyed, but which felt kind of disjointed. I was writing a monthly column for the Boston Globe called "In Practice," practicing internal medicine, studying nonfiction writing in a graduate program, conducting narrative medicine workshops that use storytelling as a clinical and educational tool, and running a group for patients with multiple risk factors for cardiovascular disease, focusing especially on nutrition, exercise, and the psychological aspects of behavior change. Now came along an opportunity to put all these things together: writing, storytelling, my interest in weight and stress management and preventive medicine, and my clinical experience.

Incredible!
There was just one teeny tiny problem. Okay, the problem weighed approximately 15 pounds. That's the amount of weight I'd gained at menopause a couple of years earlier.

Practically overnight, I'd slipped from a healthy weight--which, of course, I'd spent my whole adult life trying to reduce--just into the overweight range. I had plenty of company (two-thirds of my fellow Americans) but that didn't make me feel less ashamed or isolated. An overweight doctor? An overweight doctor who had the nerve to write a book counseling others to lose weight? Embarrassing.

Nevertheless, I said yes to the offer, signed the contract, and started drafting the book. But the whole time, a voice in my head chanted: Fraud. Phony. Hypocrite. I hadn't seen Julie Silver in person in a few years, and I'd never met Amy Newmark, the Connecticut -based publisher of Chicken Soup For the Soul, and I dreaded the moment when we would convene to celebrate the publication of the new series of HHP/CSS books and work on a publicity campaign including videos (videos!). Maybe, I thought, I could go on a crash diet before then (which would 100% contradict the philosophy of small, healthy, incremental behavior change I espouse in my practice and in Say Hello To A Better Body).

Then, I realized something--something profound and yet so simple and true that it made me laugh out loud: my own struggle with weight didn't disqualify me from helping others who struggled. It made me more qualified. I'd always been the kind of physician who shared her own experiences when that felt appropriate and helpful to patients--why not now?

I contacted Julie and Amy and told them I wanted to incorporate elements of my own story into Say Hello To A Better Body. They told me to go for it. I started being a little more open with the cardiovascular prevention group about my own challenges in exercising consistently and eating healthfully and they seemed not put off, but actually inspired that I was both an "expert" and a fellow traveler. When the time came to make the promotional videos for the book, I spoke frankly on camera about my own journey as a woman over 50 trying to get fit.

But by then, I had lost most of the extra weight.
Being more honest with my patients had allowed me to engage more fully in our mutual effort, making me a more effective coach and a more successful participant: a win-win.

During our medical training we learn that caring for our patients requires superhuman self-sacrifice. We forgo sleep, exercise and regular meals; we repress emotion and ignore our own illnesses; we deny ourselves time with family and friends. As we become mature physicians the demands may become a bit lighter, but we never quite lose the notion that we must be, somehow, less human than our patients.

The truth is, though, that we don't need to be perfect in order to help our patients get better.

And sometimes, we may even find that our imperfections are among our most powerful assets as healers.


Suzanne Koven M.D. received her B.A. in English literature from Yale and her M.D. from Johns Hopkins. She also holds an M.F.A. in nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars.She has practiced primary care internal medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston for over 20 years. Her essays, articles, blogs, and reviews have appeared in The Boston Globe, JAMA, Psychology Today, The Rumpus.net, and other publications. Her book, Say Hello to A Better Body: Weight Loss and Fitness for Women Over 50, was released in May, 2012. Visit her web site www.suzannekovenmd.com. Email her at inpracticemd@gmail.com.

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