By Isabella Cuan | Photos by Peggy Peterson

Penn medical student Katie Magoon is combining a background in nursing and health policy with audio storytelling through an oral history project with women in medicine.

Katie Magoon, RN, NP, MPA, was raised in Canton, Ohio, in a family of physicians and health care professionals, a world in which family dinners in the hospital cafeteria were the norm. Such an early exposure to the health care system gave her a nuanced understanding of the field and fueled her desire to be a part of it. Yet Magoon’s path in health care has been far from traditional. And though her diverse experiences and interests in health care have led her many places, from health policy to nursing care for vulnerable populations, they have ultimately converged in her latest adventure as a doctor-in-training at the Perelman School of Medicine.

“I love working with people, I love hearing their stories, and I also love thinking about more macro-level issues. For me, it makes more sense to think about those issues if I also have my feet on the ground for a little while.”

Now, as a third year medical student, Magoon strives to contextualize all of her interests in the world of science and medical practice. Deeply passionate about working with people and storytelling, Magoon has spearheaded an oral history project, engaging with and recording stories about women in medicine.

How did you develop an interest in medicine?

In college, I thought that I was going to be doing health policy and be a kind of policy wonk for the rest of my life, and then I was introduced to nursing and decided to attend Yale School of Nursing. I then moved to New York, where I worked as a nurse practitioner in adolescent family planning and adolescent HIV clinics, as well as in adolescent transgender care, at SUNY Downstate and Brooklyn Hospitals. Because of where I worked, I was able to pursue a degree in health policy. While obtaining my master’s in health policy while working as a nurse practitioner, I fell in love with actually practicing medicine. I started to realize that if I want to treat someone for HIV, I wanted to be a lot more comfortable with a lot of the hard science behind the medications we use. A lot of nurses do have that background, but I didn’t because of my policy background. So I decided to throw myself into science and went to medical school and came here for Penn Med, and somehow they let me in!

Did you ever envision yourself doing anything other than health care?

Not really. I always have been someone who is more comfortable in scrubs than I am in nice clothes and so I always thought I would be in health care in some way, shape or form. In fact, when I told my grandmother that I would possibly be interested in becoming a doctor, she joked, “Can’t you guys think of anything else to do with your lives?” My younger brother, who is actually a Penn medical student now, was a teacher for a little while, so that’s sort of the closest any of us have ever come to doing anything outside of medicine. He’s taking a year off and pursuing a Fulbright scholarship in China. He’ll come back and graduate from Penn Med. My sister works on fishing boats and she does environmental work, is an EMT on the side, and knows marine biology first aid. And my older brother actually passed away while he was in medical school. My family is pretty rooted in health care.

I always thought I’d be doing some kind of health policy or provision of care and I would like to continue to merge both. I love working with people, I love hearing their stories, and I also love thinking about more macro-level issues. For me, it makes more sense to think about those issues if I also have my feet on the ground for a little while.

How has your career in nursing impacted your experience in medical school and ambition to be a physician?

We have a very eclectic class, with people from a variety of different backgrounds and I think I am one of those people. We have people who have an insane amount of research experience and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever been around in my whole life. Some people came from a very strong science background and that was just never me. I’ve always liked science but I just didn’t have that same sort of training—it’s just not what I emphasized. What I did emphasize was interacting with people, being in the healthcare system, and clinical work. We all have our strengths and sometimes they know something and sometimes I know something.

Tell me more about the oral history project you are spearheading and the inspiration behind it.

I feel very lucky to be at Penn Med because I get to work on a lot of research here. I identified a few mentors who have been really wonderful to me—Dr. Aletha Akers, Dr. Nadia Dowshen, and Dr. Paris Butler have been so inviting. I’ve gotten to work on their research projects and have gotten a lot of experience. I am also excited to be working with Dr. Jesse Taylor next year.

My passion project right now is this oral history project. It was really inspired by my mom. She was in that class of ‘70s women going to medical school when it really was mostly men, and she has a lot of stories about that. And I grew up hearing those stories and thinking a lot about what it meant to be a woman in this medical world.

“It all ties together because of the importance of communication and storytelling in medicine.”

My mom was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease over 20 years ago, and she is getting to the point where it is difficult to communicate. My mom has always inspired me because she was an English major in college and has always been a phenomenal writer. As a doctor, she has always used incredible communication abilities to improve the care that she provides for patients. And even when she wasn’t able to physically do a lot of that anymore, she would do things like teaching and writing. And that [desire to capture her stories while she can still communicate] is really what inspired me to start this project. Also, in talking to my classmates in school, I learned that we actually have a lot of moms who were these first female physicians [in predominantly male cohorts]. So I thought that if I am this influenced by one person, then what would it be like to have oral histories of all these other women in medicine?

How did you initially get the project off the ground? Where are you with it now?

We started off with a small cohort of people at Penn Med who were interested in getting these stories down, and now we are trying to record stories from women all over the world. At this point, we have only been able to interview cisgender women, but we are starting to have more of a conversation about how we want this project to morph and not be limited to cisgender women. It is interesting though because for women in my mom’s generation, defining themselves as women was very important to many of them. So it’s been a little bit of an interesting tension in that way.

We are now in the process of getting all these stories recorded. We aren’t exactly sure what we want to do with them yet, but it’s been really fun so far to get them recorded.

It has been really powerful because it is a great reminder, while on the day-to-day grind of being in medicine, that this is something that has affected these women, and has shaped their lives in a really beautiful and powerful way. I think we would be remiss if we didn’t record it. It’s an important part of history.

For example, my mom would always say that people expected her to drop out of medical school once she got married. But she kept going, and luckily had the support of her feminist husband. Another interesting thing that sprung up was that a lot of these women practiced throughout the start of the HIV epidemic, so we are thinking about starting another project specifically about the HIV epidemic and what it was like to practice in the beginning of it when people were truly afraid to interact with these patients, and how that influenced how they viewed themselves as physicians. Since I also worked in the HIV world, I am particularly interested in this.

Is the project primarily based at Penn Med? What goals do you have for the project?

I think it would be a dream to one day have people send in their audio and for us to use it in some way. But for now, it’s a few different people who are Penn Med. We have Vidya [Viswanathan] who is the creator of Doctors Who Create, which is really fun because we both help each other with our passion projects. Her mom is a physician. Ilana Nelson-Greenberg, who is the most wonderful person you’ve ever met and is also in our class, also has a physician mother who does important work in New York City. We have Rebecca Kim and Joan Li, who are really excellent human beings and have been really supportive of me and this idea. Every time we meet, it’s one of those things where you don’t think you have time for anything extra, but [working] with others, you always leave energized. And that’s also what I love about Vidya’s project. As doctors, we need to be sustained and be able to process these really important things we are seeing on a daily basis—and, for a lot of people, that is through the arts. And I am really thankful that I have found a community of people here who I can do that with.

Martha Magoon, MD, and Katie Magoon.

You are also a podcast producer for Doctors Who Create. What does your role entail and how do you see this relating to your other interests?

From the time I was little, the thing I would get in trouble for most was socializing and chatting too much. When one of the surgeons I worked with gave me feedback, he said you definitely have the “gift of gab.” Not sure it was a compliment, but that’s fine! I love getting to know people and hearing their stories and doing that while being recorded is a little awkward but a fun challenge. Terry Gross [host of “Fresh Air” on NPR] is one of my heroes. I admire the way that she asks poignant questions in a sensitive and non-judgmental manner, while also using humor and kindness to connect with her guests. As physicians, we have lab values, and physical exams, but everyone will tell you that you get the diagnosis from the history. As a doctor, it’s so important to effectively communicate, so I’ve tried to take that seriously and challenge myself with that. It all ties together because of the importance of communication and storytelling in medicine.

What other interests do you have? What do you like to do in your free time (if you have any in the first place!)?

My friends and family are by far the most important thing in my life. I am lucky now that they live close by. I also have two dogs that are really good study buddies. One’s name is Lily and I’ve had her since I lived in Brooklyn. She and I have run just about every New York bridge and everywhere in Philadelphia and have road tripped all over the country together.

In my preclinical years here at Penn, I fostered a bunch of dogs and one of them, Red, I couldn’t let go of, so I also adopted her. I’ve also always been into sports, and I was a pretty serious swimmer in high school and continued to do so in college. I still do open water swims and triathlons and I recently got into boxing (but I have to be careful with my hands if I am thinking about surgery!). And writing, music, and dance!

What do you hope to accomplish in the future?

I want to be an absolute master of my craft to the greatest extent possible. One really cool thing about medicine is that it’s kind of impossible to ever feel like you are a master. So to the greatest extent possible, I would like to become excellent at my craft.

And then I hope to always merge my interests in providing direct patient care, research, and just also thinking about the world from a more macro-level perspective because I never want to lose that. And finally just being a good sister, daughter and friend.

Do you have any pieces of wisdom to offer others pursuing this path?

Life is too short to not go for what you want. Especially as women, we sometimes—and I have even found myself—don’t do that. And when I take a step back and reassess, I am always glad when I am thoughtful about what I want and who I am, and really going for it in an honest way. Life’s too short to not go for your dreams.

Isabella Cuan is a pre-medical student at the University of Pennsylvania studying neuroscience and art history, and a staff writer for Doctors Who Create, a website founded by Penn medical student Vidya Viswanathan. This story was produced as part of a partnership between Penn Medicine and Doctors Who Create, and is jointly published online. 

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