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The Secret Lives of Doctors — Dr. Philip Corvo, the karate master

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A Broadway performer. An accomplished pianist. A dedicated marathoner. A third-degree black belt. An award-winning filmmaker. A water-skier with all the right moves. A high-flying fighter pilot physician. Doctors from across the state open up about their off-script origin stories and lives outside the office. 

Dr. Philip Corvo

Dr. Philip Corvo, chief of surgery at St. Mary's Hospital, is also a third-degree black belt and instructor in Goju-Ryu karate.

The Karate Master

Dr. Philip Corvo

Chairman of the Stanley J. Dudrick Department Surgery and director of Surgical Critical Care at Saint Mary’s Hospital

When the COVIDpandemic hit last year, Trinity Health of New England posted a video to YouTube featuring surgeon Dr. Philip Corvo parodying The Karate Kid and urging everyone to wash their hands — think “Wash in! Wash out!” What many may not know, however, is that the video actually showed two things that Corvo takes seriously. 

There’s medicine, of course, as he’s chairman of the Department of Surgery at Saint Mary’s Hospital, part of the Trinity Health of New England network. But although the “students” in the video were not familiar with a martial arts class, Corvo is actually a third-degree black belt in Go-Ju karate.

“Go-Ju basically means ‘hard-soft,’ so very basically, you block softly and deflect the blows coming at you using your opponent’s momentum against them, but when it’s necessary to strike, you’re fully prepared to strike and strike hard,” Corvo explains. 

Practicing medicine and the practice of karate have more similarities than one might think, and that’s come up many times over the years in discussions with fellow surgeons and in interviews for medical school, residency and jobs, Corvo points out.

“There are times as a doctor and a surgeon where you need to very aggressively go after what’s impacting a patient, and whether that’s surgery that’s been planned or if it’s a trauma situation where you don’t have much time to think, you need to be fully prepared and ready to go,” Corvo says. “And then in fighting or in medicine, there are times where you have to be patient for the most effective approach. In patient care, often one of the hardest things to do is to wait and give the body the chance to fix itself. So I think one has helped me with the other, and vice versa.”   

His passion for karate dates back even further than his interest in medicine. As a kid getting picked on by bigger boys, Corvo’s parents suggested karate lessons. He took to karate right away, and stuck with it passionately until college. “Serious schoolwork got in the way,” he says. “It was very difficult to be pre-med and still do karate.”

He returned to it, and even served as a karate instructor for several years, but now the days of contact karate are in the past. “As a surgeon, I can’t risk breaking my hand with karate,” Corvo says with a smile. “That would be a little hard to explain to the hospital, to my surgery team and to patients.” 

Now, he practices kata, which he described as a solitary set of very specific moves to defend against an attacker. “It’s more like shadow boxing,” he says. “It’s physical but meditative, perhaps in the way people think of tai chi.” 

Dedicating himself to learning karate and advancing to black belt helped him with the discipline to complete med school and rise to his administrative position at Saint Mary’s. As Corvo puts it, “My Sensei, or karate teachers, over the years were influential in my life just below the level of my parents. I’m grateful for all I’ve been taught. Martial arts teaches you discipline, concentration and humility, and I hope I’ve taken the best lessons from karate in that sense, and used them to be a better person, a better doctor and a better surgeon.”

NEXT: Dr. Asha Dhamija, the baker

This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Connecticut MagazineYou can subscribe to Connecticut Magazine here, or find the current issue on sale hereSign up for our newsletter to get our latest and greatest content delivered right to your inbox. Have a question or comment? Email editor@connecticutmag.com. And follow us on Facebook and Instagram @connecticutmagazine and Twitter @connecticutmag.