Laura Kolbe on How COVID-19 is Rewriting the Story of Healthcare
From the Thresholds Podcast, Hosted by Jordan Kisner
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In the fourth episode of our second season, writer and physician Laura Kolbe discusses how the staff and patients at NewYork-Presbyterian learned in tandem about COVID-19, and in doing so reconstructed the script of doctor-patient relationships.
From the interview:
Laura Kolbe: Perhaps one of the very few silver linings of the pandemic is that I didn’t know about COVID until February or so, and I didn’t really know the things I knew about it in April until it was April. And then there were more things that I learned in May when it was May, and and so on and so forth. So, I was a learner. I was a student, even as I was the teacher and practitioner. I was all of those things at once. And the same was true for every single other person. For every single patient. For every single custodian in the building. For every single speech pathologist in the building.
All of us were learning and practicing in parallel together. That meant that it was easier to see than ever that the emperor had no clothes—that I, the doctor, was just a person, you know, just a woman trying to do my job well, trying to keep people safe and help them feel respected and heard. But a very, very fallible person with all the glitches that each person carries. Because that was made ever more apparent by my own lack of expertise in COVID, or my expertise growing at the same rate as every other human in that hospital, including the patients, it became more clear that that is, in some sense, always true. We just choose to forget it, or we choose to choreograph the scene a different way, where people endow the doctor with an aura of knowledge and an aura of authority. Which is a useful construct, but it is a construct.
So to have that radically unveiled, and to be learning together with the patients about, well, how are we going to figure out getting you from swallowing ice chips to swallowing pudding? Or how are we going to get you to feel safe enough, to feel enough reduction in the trauma and anxiety and depression that you’re facing because you’ve been alone, apart from your family for 90 days and haven’t been able to get out of bed, how are we going to overcome that together so you can make the next step toward, maybe by the end of this week walking to the doorway of your room? Those are not easy questions, and I didn’t know the answer, and I don’t think the patient did either.
But together, we could do this essay. We could try different drafts. We could revise different theses. We could kind of compose together a way that we might move forward. A way that we might construct the story.
This episode is brought to you by: Betterhelp. Get 10% off your first month by visiting betterhelp.com/thresholds; What Happens at Night by Peter Cameron, now available wherever you get books from Catapult; and, Luster by Raven Leilani, now available from FSG.
Laura Kolbe is a writer as well as a physician and assistant professor of internal medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center. She studied English and American literature at Harvard and at Jesus College, University of Cambridge, before studying medicine at the University of Virginia and completing her medical residency at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. This spring, her clinical work and views on patient care during COVID-19 were highlighted in The New Yorker and The New York Times and she co-created Weill Cornell Medical Center’s COVID Palliative Care and Hospice Unit, and its COVID Recovery Unit, both among the first of their kind in the United States. Her poems, essays, and stories have appeared in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Conjunctions, The New York Review of Books, The Washington Post, and The Yale Review.