cover image Letter to a Young Female Physician: Notes on a Medical Life

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

Suzanne Koven. Norton, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-1-324-00714-2

Physician Koven expands her New England Journal of Medicine essay, which chronicled her struggle with imposter syndrome, into a vulnerable if often frustrating memoir of a life and career spent continually questioning her place and abilities. Her doubts formed from childhood; her mother started law school “after years as a housewife” when Koven was a teenager, and quizzed her daughter on legal dilemmas but also passed down her obsession with dieting. Her father was an orthopedic surgeon, but he “didn’t encourage... nor discourage” Koven’s medical ambitions. Perceived missteps and failures weighed heavily on Koven’s recollections of med school and her entry into the field when she joined Harvard Medical. (“I don’t understand the pancreas!” she wails to her husband.) She worried that she might “kill someone” or just “look foolish,” and blamed herself for not diagnosing her own mother’s heart attack. She calls out sexism—when appointed chief resident at John Hopkins, she gets called the “token woman”—but also recounts moments of connection, such as hugging a belligerent dying patient who had been labeled a “pain” on the ward, but as Koven writes, the woman was “her pain.” The insidious nature of insecurity in women’s professional identities is on full display here, and will land as painfully familiar for many readers. (May)