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The Healing Power of Storytelling

L-R: Suzanne Koven, MD, Valerie Winchester and her daughter, Lexi.

Profile in Medicine

The Healing Power of Storytelling

The Mass General community recently celebrated the generosity of donor Valerie Winchester and the accomplishments of Suzanne Koven, MD, who seamlessly blends medicine and writing in her primary care practice as Mass General’s Writer in Residence.

Kelsey Abbruzzese
September 9, 2022

Suzanne Koven, MD, was honored as the inaugural incumbent of the Valerie Winchester Family Endowed Chair in Primary Care Medicine at a recent virtual celebration. Members of the Massachusetts General Hospital community, along with Dr. Koven and Ms. Winchester’s family and friends, gathered to recognize Ms. Winchester’s generosity and Dr. Koven’s accomplishments as a primary care physician and Mass General’s Writer in Residence.

A Writer, Teacher and Physician

Writing and medicine have long occupied Dr. Koven’s interests and skills. She received her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Yale and her medical degree from Johns Hopkins, and she also holds a Master of Fine Arts in nonfiction from the Bennington Writing Seminars. Dr. Koven has cared for primary care patients at Mass General since 1990 and assumed the Writer in Residence role in 2019.

As Writer in Residence, Dr. Koven promotes career development, collegiality and a culture of compassion and inclusion through reading, writing and discussion. She holds reading and writing workshops for Mass General staff, mentors those who are interested in leading discussions or participating in local writing activities and produces her own work for publications such as The New England Journal of Medicine, The Boston Globe, and Psychology Today.

“Literature and storytelling break down barriers: between young and old, doctor and nurse, and, most significantly, healthcare worker and patient,” Dr. Koven says. “It reminds us that we’re simply all humans and, that, I feel more than ever, is what we need in the hospital and everywhere else.”

“Suzanne’s work over the years has had such a profound impact on our staff,” said Dr. Joshua Metlay, Interim Chief of the Department of Medicine and Chief of the Division of General Internal Medicine. “Storytelling is uniquely a human endeavor and an integral part of who we are and our profession. Suzanne, more than anyone at Mass General, has helped me see that.”

A Longstanding Relationship

Ms. Winchester and Dr. Koven developed a strong relationship over the years, as Dr. Koven served as the primary care physician for both Ms. Winchester and her daughter. In witnessing Dr. Koven’s patient care and storytelling skills firsthand, Ms. Winchester — a longtime philanthropic supporter of Mass General — became one of Dr. Koven’s most enthusiastic supporters in her Writer in Residence work.

“She is more than a physician in a white coat. She is a woman and a human being who treats her patients with compassion,” said Ms. Winchester. “She comes into the exam room often with a twinkle of warmth in her eye and leaves with a departing piece of life advice or a funny story. “Then, in addition to her family, her medical practice, her time teaching at Harvard Medical School, Suzanne took her precious free moments to begin a writing program at the hospital to help staff express themselves through writing, which has not only been a remarkable success within the Mass General community, but also spread to other hospitals across the country as well.”

Ms. Winchester’s investment to create the endowed chair will honor Dr. Koven’s many contributions, but also leave an indelible mark on the Mass General faculty by creating a prestigious position that will live on within the Department of Medicine in perpetuity.

Safe Spaces for Communication

Dr. Koven has written numerous essays about her experiences as a woman in medicine. She transformed one of those essays, “Letter to a Young Female Physician,” into a book that offers candid and illuminating stories about her career. In a world where burnout and isolation can plague hardworking doctors, colleagues have praised her Literature and Medicine program — a reading workshop group comprised of fellow physicians who meet 10 times a year — and reflective writing activities sponsored by the program as unique, positive approaches to foster a sense of community.

With Dr. Koven’s encouragement, resources and support, numerous members of the hospital community have been inspired to publish their own writing. During the recent chair celebration event, friends, family members and colleagues of Dr. Koven and Ms. Winchester gathered to commemorate the endowment of the chair and its impact at Mass General.

“I knew right away that gifting a Mass General endowed chair in her honor was the perfect way to recognize all Suzanne has given to her patients and to the hospital by starting her Writer in Residence program,” said Ms. Winchester. “I am proud to be a supporter of a world-class institution like Mass General that is tirelessly dedicated to patient care, medical research, and community outreach.”

To learn more about supporting Mass General’s Division of Internal General Medicine, please contact us.