One of America’s Top Pediatricians Leaves Pediatrics

Maggie Kozel with her husband and two daughters. A top pediatrician, she decided to leave the profession. Her new book explains why.

Maggie Kozel with her husband and two daughters. A top pediatrician, she decided to leave the profession. Her new book explains why.

“You have to read this book,” my friend Rebecca urged, handing me back an advanced review copy I had loaned her. “Everyone needs to read this book. We need to get this book in front of every member of Congress. This is exactly what happened to me. This is why I left medicine.”

Even though I’m an avid reader, I have stacks and stacks of unread review copies, sent to me by authors or by their nice PR folks. It was one of these books, Maggie Kozel’s The Color of Atmosphere: One Doctor’s Journey In and Out of Medicine that I loaned to Rebecca. After her wholehearted endorsement, I put Kozel’s book on the top of the stack. I read it in two days.


Maggie Kozel with a patient when she was a Navy doctor

Maggie Kozel with a patient when she was a Navy doctor

In the book, Kozel describes growing up one of four children of often sloppy drunk and shouting parents. She escapes the depressed town of Point Lookout, New York to become a pediatrician. She meets her husband, Randy, in medical school (there’s nothing like dissecting a cadaver to spark a romance). Randy chooses a career as a neurologist. Eager to travel and see the world, they both find work at the US Navy Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan.

During her medical training, Kozel is at first resistant to becoming a pediatrician. “…[T]he last think I wanted to do was spend my time locked in mortal combat with screaming kids, digging wax out of their ears while their deranged parents hovered over me, wringing their hands,” she writes. “I had hated pediatrics in medical school.”

But become a pediatrician she does, learning how to intubate a premature baby and distinguish between a life-threatening childhood illness and a simple viral infection. Providing medical care to active duty military personnel and their families, Kozel and her colleagues “saw illnesses we never saw back in the States–typhoid fever, malaria, tuberculosis and many more … There were expert subspecialists a phone call and twelve time zones away, but we were the front line, doing what we were trained to do, and being a doctor was wonderful.”

After working for the Navy for ten years, Kozel, her husband and their two small daughters head back to America. They end up in Rhode Island, where she joins a pediatric practice. Used to the government’s single-payer health system, Kozel has to adjust to the system in the States. It’s demoralizing: Because pediatricians have to bill insurance companies in order to get paid, Kozel details how much of her practice’s decisions on treatment have more to do with how to make sure they will get paid than with what’s in the best interests of the patients. She finds herself working exhausting hours, rushing patients through appointments as fast as she can, and being pressured by parents to prescribe unnecessary medications.

So when a job opportunity at her daughter’s school opens up, Kozel acts precipitously and does the unthinkable: she quits her job as a doctor and becomes instead a high school science teacher.

Maggie Kozel in her new job: teaching chemistry to high school students

Maggie Kozel in her new job: teaching chemistry to high school students


She’s energetic and funny and the gum-chewing ponytail-wearing 14- and 15-year-olds love her. She works regular hours, is no longer exhausted, and does not have to decide her curriculum based on what the medical insurance companies will reimburse her for.


Color of AtmosphereThe Color of Atmosphere tells a gripping story. It’s an important book. It shows, firsthand, what’s wrong with our healthcare system. Kozel has been called a “traitor” by her colleagues on doctors-only Internet sites. I’m not surprised she’s struck a chord. Though so many doctors in America feel demoralized and burnt out, and though most feel that they are no longer delivering an adequate standard of care, it’s totally taboo, and a betrayal of the profession, to admit as much in public.

I applaud Kozel’s courage in writing such an honest book. I hope you’ll read it. And send a copy to Congress.

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11 thoughts on “One of America’s Top Pediatricians Leaves Pediatrics”

  1. I cannot wait to read this book. I’ve been reading “The Healing of America” by T. R. Reid (it came out two years ago but I’ve been abroad) – I’m very interested in books on the healthcare system right now. Thanks for the heads up on this new one.

  2. And, there are those who think the new healthcare bill is terrible and will destroy their world. I don’t get it. These are the same people who need this healthcare bill the most. How could getting rid of the pre-existing conditions exclusion be bad. Maybe for the insurance companies but certainly not for the insured.

  3. This sounds so honest and eye-opening. Isn’t it sad, how doctors with the best intentions (not to mention the best training and brains?) are discouraged from practicing the way their heart tells them to?

  4. Sounds like a fascinating read, not just because of the politics but also because of the personal courage it must have taken to walk away from a steady, well-respected job to one that probably pays less and earns less respect. Still, teaching is an equally noble and important profession.

  5. Thanks for reporting on this book. I had not heard of it but will search it out and recommend it to my library and local clinic. How very sad that talented doctors are giving up on the system!

  6. This sounds like an important read — but think I may be too discouraged by the world to read it right now. Thanks for telling us about it, though.

  7. Good for her for getting out, finding something else she loves, and telling it how it is. Brave. And thanks for bringing this book to my attention.

  8. Hi Jennifer, This is fascinating. I want to read the book, for sure. After all, I’ve never heard of a doctor leaving medicine and becoming a teacher. Our health care system is absolutely sick.

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