Throughout her career, Deborah Korenstein has sought out new professional challenges while working equally hard to strike a balance in her personal life. The lessons she learned along the way about connecting with colleagues and rising above difficult situations prepared her well for the fierce challenges she faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Born and raised in New Jersey, Dr. Korenstein grew up with her parents and sister. She was inspired by her mother, a computer programmer in the 1960s who quit her job to raise her children. She then went back to school in her 50s to learn a new computer programming language — and re-entered the workforce. “I thought it was amazing that she went back and reinvented herself,” says Dr. Korenstein.
Nobody was a doctor in her large extended family, but Dr. Korenstein loved her pediatrician, and that led her to consider a career in medicine. “I either wanted to be a doctor or the person who scoops ice cream, but I think I chose well because ice cream is very seasonal!”
She majored in math as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania but knew that a career in numbers and theories would not be enough. “At the end of the day, I needed human beings to populate my career,” she says. “That’s what really drew me into medicine.”
Launching a Career in Residency Education
Dr. Korenstein went on to earn her medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and completed her residency in internal medicine at Beth Israel Hospital in Boston. Her experience as an intern left an indelible impression.
“Internship feels like you’re going through war. You’re working crazy hours, you’re tired, and it’s an insane time in so many ways,” she says of this rite of passage, which takes place during the first year after a doctor graduates from medical school. “But you also bond with the people going through it with you because it’s a unique call to arms and a really difficult but meaningful experience.”
After working for some time as a primary care physician at Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Korenstein became the Associate Director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program. She found it rewarding to mentor and work with the interns and residents.
“I loved getting to know them and watching them develop as they cared for patients,” remembers Dr. Korenstein. She taught them how to understand clinical research evidence from a mathematical perspective, which she acknowledges is not intuitive for many doctors. “I especially appreciated when there would be an ‘aha’ moment and someone really got something,” she says, adding how touched she was to receive notes years later from residents who said what she taught them made a difference in their careers.Back to top
Paving the Way for Others
She appreciated her own mentors just as much. “The mentors who I found inspirational were people who were both really smart and accomplished in their professional careers but also managed to find balance,” she explains. “Once I had children, it became incredibly important for me to figure out how to navigate that balance.”
Dr. Korenstein fondly remembers one of her bosses at Mount Sinai who supported her effort to negotiate a part-time faculty position that would allow her to leave work early in time to pick up her young children from school three days a week. “It was among my proudest professional accomplishments because I was the first person to ever do that at Mount Sinai, and it made a huge difference to my kids,” she recalls. “My mentor’s support was really critical for both my career and my personal life, and I was deeply grateful for that.” The novel arrangement also paved the way for other faculty members to have the opportunity to work part-time.
After about five years, she returned to her full-time schedule.Back to top
Making Her Mark at MSK
Hungry for yet another challenge, Dr. Korenstein shifted focus and immersed herself in health services research to understand the factors that led to patients receiving unneeded care. She joined Memorial Sloan Kettering in 2013, tasked with minimizing unnecessary and potentially harmful tests and treatments while ensuring that patients receive the care they really need. She became Chief of the General Internal Medicine Service a year later.
She says she loves the diversity of her job at MSK, which has kept her challenged and engaged. “I spend time doing administrative work, taking care of patients, conducting research, and being part of my academic community, all of which allows me to do interesting work and meet cool people,” says Dr. Korenstein.Back to top
Caring for MSK Employees during COVID-19
Dr. Korenstein led MSK’s COVID-19 Employee Response Team during the pandemic, expanding on the efforts of Employee Health and Wellness Services to take care of staff.
“The health of our employees was really important because we had to staff our hospital,” recalls Dr. Korenstein. “People were panicked at the beginning, so we needed to address both their infections and their fears right away.”
Her team, which consisted of leadership from Nursing, Advanced Practice Providers (APPs), Administration, and Human Resources, assumed the enormous task of creating a process for testing staff for COVID-19. The team later established a program for surveillance and antibody testing for employees. In addition, they set up a call center staffed by nurses, nurse practitioners, and APPs to answer hundreds of inquiries a day from employees who needed information about everything from personal protective equipment (PPE) policies to testing eligibility.
Many employees who were sick with COVID-19 couldn’t reach a primary care doctor because most places hadn’t figured out how to do telehealth visits yet. “My team worked to set up a complex healthcare system, essentially over a weekend, to care for our employees who tested positive and couldn’t reach their personal doctors,” says Dr. Korenstein, who credits DigITs for providing the technical tools and expertise that allowed it to happen so quickly.
The effort, known as the Employee to Patient (E2P) Program, was staffed by frontline nurses who took calls from COVID-positive employees. They also performed remote outreach, sending out surveys and following up by phone with anyone who reported worsening symptoms. Doctors would then conduct telehealth visits with employees who needed additional help.
Dr. Korenstein’s team also collaborated with the COVID-19 Remote Monitoring Program, which was overseen by Diane Reidy-Lagunes, MD, Associate Deputy Physician-in-Chief of MSK’s Regional Care Network. With help from Dr. Reidy-Lagunes, the team was able to obtain pulse oximeters for employees so they could be monitored remotely.
“We got a lot of feedback from employees who were incredibly grateful and appreciated that MSK was caring for them during a really scary time when they needed it most,” recalls Dr. Korenstein. “Our doctors and nurses were amazing during this effort, and that was so meaningful for our colleagues here. I feel like we really made a difference.”Back to top
Finding Meaning in a Difficult Situation
Dr. Korenstein says that her experience as one of the leaders managing MSK’s pandemic response reminds her of her days as a resident.
“It’s rewarding to be part of a team and bond with them as you go through something really challenging together; this is something I experienced during internship,” she says. “It’s that same sense of teamwork that I find rewarding now.”
She also points out that she feels privileged to have had a role to play in MSK’s pandemic response. “As a general internist, I’m always a little to the side of our main mission of treating cancer,” she says. “It was nice that the expertise I brought to the table was central to this effort.”Back to top
Coping with Stress
In the spring of 2020, Dr. Korenstein and her husband, MSK infectious disease specialist Michael Glickman, MD, FIDSA, packed up and sold their suburban home of 20 years. It had been a long-time plan to move to the city with their two kids, but the timing could not have been worse.
“It was hard on all of us, and my stress was really over the top in March, April, and May,” she remembers. Thankfully, she found ways to cope, such as taking walks and commiserating with her husband. A Member in the Immunology Program at Sloan Kettering Institute in addition to being an attending physician, Dr. Glickman was involved in developing an antibody test for use at MSK in case a commercial test wasn’t available.
While he has worked at MSK much longer than Dr. Korenstein, their worlds don’t often intersect. “We ended up in meetings together for the first time during the pandemic, and that was really kind of fun and interesting,” says Dr. Korenstein. “It was helpful that he understood what I was going through in a way that others could not.”
She also worked closely with colleagues whom she likes and respects, including Chief Medical Epidemiologist Mini Kamboj, MD, infectious disease specialist Monika Shah, MD, and Dr. Reidy-Lagunes. “There were times we’d be on a call at crazy hours, and we would joke or laugh about something, and that camaraderie really helped,” says Dr. Korenstein. “I’m proud of what we accomplished by working together, despite the incredible stress we all felt.”Back to top
“I admire all the unknown women in history who have put their heads down and did what was necessary to get the work done,” says Dr. Korenstein.
“Now and throughout history, this is how women operate,” continues Dr. Korenstein, who is inspired by the women in her own circle of family, friends, and colleagues. “I think that’s what we all did during the pandemic. A lot of times it wasn’t easy, but we found a way to do it anyway.”Back to top