Island Pediatrician on Growing Pains, the "Asthma Alley" Myth, and the Need to Slow Down...Someday

As a pediatrician, Dr. Katherine Grimm has watched over a generation of Roosevelt Island kids grow up, carefully guiding them through childhood’s bumps, ailments, and scary moments. Over the course of her 44-year career, she has also served as a faculty member and vice-chairman of pediatrics at Mount Sinai hospital and specialized in child abuse evaluations at the New York Center for Children. The Island resident also spent eight years serving on the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation’s Board of Directors.  


As part of the ongoing Roosevelt Island Time Capsule project, Island teens Francine Elisaia and Mark Shinozaki sat down with Dr. Grimm to discuss her own childhood battle with asthma, the Island’s future without middle-class families, and why Island parents spend too much time worrying about the air we breathe.


 From left: Mark Shinozaki, Dr. Katherine Grimm, Francine Elisaia, and Adib Mansour.


Mark Shinozaki: Can you tell us about any fond memories you have of growing up? 


Dr. Katherine Grimm: I was born and mostly raised in Plainfield, New Jersey. My neighborhood in Plainfield was a middle-class one. My city was hit by the race riots in 1967 and a lot of Caucasians or white people moved out of Plainfield at that point in time, but my parents chose to stay, and, as a result, our neighborhood really became an interracial neighborhood, mostly Afro-Americans. One of my best friends, who is Afro-American, actually lived down the block from me. 


I lived in Colorado as well from ages 8 to 13. My memories of Colorado are actually quite different, because we lived in many different communities; in Denver, in the Rockies, and in two different towns in the Great Plains. Even as a kid, I thought the Rockies were absolutely beautiful. 


From Patient to Doctor


Francine Elisaia: Your mother was a legal secretary, then a stay-at-home mom, and your father was a minister and an English and American history teacher. What inspired you to pursue medicine? 


Dr. Grimm: The reason we moved to Colorado was because I had very severe childhood asthma. In those days, the treatment of asthma was quite primitive. The local physician told my parents when I was around seven that there was nothing he could do; they should either move to Florida, Colorado, or Arizona where it was believed the climate was better for asthma. 


My parents chose Colorado because they had contacts there through a religious organization. When we arrived there, my father had hoped to become pastor of a church, but that did not work out. Since he also had a masters degree in education, he started his teaching career in a mining town up in the Rockies where the school sizes were quite small and there are several grades merged together in one classroom. 


However, Colorado did not end up being a cure for my illness at all and I continued to have severe asthma. My mother heard that there was a good doctor in NJ for asthma, which was one of the reasons why my family moved back to Plainfield. I missed a lot of days of school. It was really because of my asthma that I became inspired to go into medicine. My mother's desire was that I go into teaching and that my brother go into medicine; but that's not what happened. My brother became an architect and I became a physician. 


I can remember the day that I made the decision to go into medicine: I was home sick, and in those days our family did not have a television, but we used to have magazines. We used to get Life magazine on a regular basis. In the centerfold, there was an article about the Women's Medical College. In those days, there was a quota on women in medicine for many medical schools, so when I saw that there was a medical college for women... that's when I was inspired to go into medicine. 


Elisaia: You graduated from Mt Sinai of Medicine in 1971 and your residency at Johns Hopkins Hospital in 1974. How was it for a young female physician at the time? 


Dr. Grimm: I really found no problems with it. I originally started out of the Rutgers Medical School and I transferred to Mount Sinai. Both schools were brand new, so the class sizes were relatively small. At Rutgers Medical School we initially started out with 16 students, which included two women: myself and a girl by the name of Sandra Moss. Sandy and I are still very good friends because we were the only two girls in our class and we did a lot of things together. We both transferred to Mount Sinai where there were more women, but still we represented a minority in the class. But, I never really felt discriminated against in anyway and so I have no complaints about how I was treated. 


Elisaia: What made you want to move to Roosevelt Island? 


Dr. Grimm: I was an intern at Johns Hopkins in Maryland for 3 years, then I came back to New York and worked at Mount Sinai in the emergency room. Then I was recruited to go back to Johns Hopkins to be one of the Chief Residents. I was on the faculty for two years. But then my mentor at Mount Sinai, who was in charge of the Pediatric emergency room, died at a relatively young age. So I was called by Dr. Hirschburn, the Chairman of Pediatrics at the time, who asked if I would come back to New York to take on the job of being in charge of the Pediatric ER. That's really why I came back to New York. 


I lived in Mount Sinai housing, across the street from the hospital, from 1978 until 1992. It has since been sold and is a very expensive condo. Around 1987, a good friend of mine who lived in the Rivercross building, sent me a newspaper clipping saying there was a lottery for housing in the co-op building on Roosevelt Island. My husband – who previously lived on the island – and I discussed it. I had good friends who I lived on Roosevelt Island, so I thought what is there to lose but to put our name in into the lottery. You actually had to make a $100 deposit in order to be on the lottery. 


When our name came up, we debated whether we should take advantage of it or not. It ended up working for the best because I would I have probably lost my housing there anyway as they sold the building. A lot of the faculty who lived there for decades were forced to move out. So it had worked out; it was really God's grace the way it worked out. 


A Voice for the Voiceless 


Elisaia: How hard was it for you as a young female doctor to start a career in the medical field? 


Dr. Grimm: I would say that I never had any problems. What some people interpret as being sexist, I may not have.


I think that some women are sensitive to certain things and the same things may not bother everybody. So if an elderly doctor called me “dear” or patted me on the back, I didn't really interpret that as being intrusive or demeaning, but another medical student might have interpreted it that way. I thought, they’re not used to having women around, and it felt like they’re almost acting like your grandfather. It never bothered me. 


I never felt like I didn’t have an opportunity because of being a woman. The only thing I would say – and it really worked out for the best at the end – is that traditionally at Johns Hopkins there were two Chief Residencies: the Outpatient Chief Residency where you’re in charge of the emergency room, and the Inpatient Chief Residency where you're in charge of the in-patient units. Traditionally, the Outpatient Chief Resident always became the Inpatient Chief Resident the following year. They had never had a woman Inpatient Chief Resident. In fact, I don't think they'd ever had a women Outpatient Chief Resident either. But when they asked me to become the Outpatient Chief Resident (which really meant being in charge of the Emergency Room) they did not ask me to be Inpatient after that.


I thought that was a little bit prejudicial, but getting a faculty position for two years was probably superior. Therefore I have no regrets about that at all. 


Shinozaki: Why have you chosen to practice Child Abuse Pediatrics? Have you dealt with any cases from Roosevelt Island? 


Dr. Grimm: I did have cases on Roosevelt Island. The issue is, when I came back to New York to be in charge of the Pediatric Emergency Room, I really inherited the Child Protection Program. My predecessor, who died in his early 50s from a cardiac procedure, was very passionate about child protection issues and had already started some innovative programs. So I really basically took over where he had left all. 


Shinozaki: When you see an abused child case, is it ever harder in a close-knit community like Roosevelt Island? 


Dr. Grimm: It is difficult because this is a small community, and if you already have a really good relationship with the family and then you see this a child may have been abused, getting the authorities involved is always a stressful time for the family. There was a situation in which I made a report, the family left the practice, and I would imagine they also told other people not to come to the practice. This is a difficult area to begin with, no matter where you live. It really is. It can be very very difficult. 


Elisaia: Can you describe your role in these proceedings? Is it strictly medical? 


Dr. Grimm: The kinds of cases that I need to testify in are only cases in which there's been a physical injury and the question is whether the physical injury as an accidental or whether it is inflicted. That's really one of my passions: distinguishing between accidental and inflicted injuries. I was the medical expert in a case in which a child had a fracture, but the child also had other underlying medical issues as well. I felt that it was more likely that it was on an accidental basis rather than on inflicted basis. 


Elisaia: What is it like to work with newborns through 18 or 20 years? Describe the bonding you have experienced with some of the patients. 


Dr. Grimm: Obviously a lot of people establish a bond with their pediatrician because they see that pediatrician regularly and you get to know them and their families. I am now old enough that I'm seeing children of my former patients, so that is an interesting experience. 


Elisaia: How has it been, moving your practice from Rivercross to the Urgent Care facility? Do you regret it? 


Dr. Grimm: I personally like my offices here in the Urgent Care facility. I've gotten to know a number of the providers and it's been overall positive for me personally. I think the staff feel there's less privacy and less space for them. I think you have to make the most of it. I do love my new exam rooms; I think they are well-equipped. I miss having windows. We had windows in our exam rooms in the other office and it is nice being able to look out the window and see trees. 


Shinozaki: What were your goals and objectives you set at the beginning of your career as a doctor?


Dr. Grimm: When I was an intern resident, I worked every other night and every other weekend. I think that when you're working so hard, your goal is to just get through it. 


I was fortunate that a lot of my opportunities sorta fell in my lap and they were not necessary things that I sought after. I did negotiate the faculty position at Hopkins because I thought that was a major move to go from New York to Baltimore for only one year. But the opportunity to come back to Mount Sinai was nothing that I pursued; it just came to me. The opportunity to work at the New York Center for Children, which is where I did a lot of child abuse work and which is one of my current jobs, also sort of came to me. I can't remember ever looking for a job. 


The Myth of Asthma Alley


Shinozaki: You have been a consultant to New York City for asthma-related issues? 


Dr. Grimm: I used to be very involved in asthma programs in East Harlem; that was one of my many jobs at Mount Sinai.


Elisaia: In our interview with Assembly Member Seawright, she voiced disappointed that Governor Cuomo vetoed the Waste Transfer Station air quality bill to research its effects on the inhabitants of the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island. Do you share her concerns? 


Dr. Grimm: Well there has been a lot of talk about air quality on Roosevelt Island for as long as I've been in my practice. It just has not been substantiated.


There was a group of individuals who used to say this was “Asthma Alley.” That was never born out by facts, and certainly was not seen in my practice. The Mount Sinai Department of Environmental Medicine actually became involved and did an assessment, and this was a number of years ago, but there was no suggestion that the air quality in this area was inferior – and fact it was superior to other parts of the city. 


In my own practice, I see relatively little asthma. One time a family was complaining vehemently about the ConEd plant across the river because their apartment faced it and they could tell their child’s asthma was being affected by that plant. But, in reality, there was smoking going on in that house. And once you have cigarette smoking going on in a house where there's an asthmatic, you really have to blame the cigarette smoking before you blame the plant across the river.


I'm a big believer and trying to have the best air quality and water as possible, but I can’t say from my observations that things are as bad as what some people think they are. And asthma happens to be one of my specialties. I used to take care of a lot of asthma up at the Mount Sinai Hospital main campus and in East Harlem, and I just don't see the same magnitude here in Roosevelt Island.


The Things You Never Try 


Shinozaki: What are your views and solutions for the current opioid epidemic? Especially with regards to adolescents and young adults? 


Dr. Grimm: Well you know this is not new. When I was in medical school, heroin was really big. Methadone maintenance programs were developed to deal with heroin addiction. That was followed by crack cocaine. There's always going to be challenges with addictions, always. Physician now have mandated training – six hours of training – to keep our license in New York State on the prescriptions of opioid. 


Physicians have inadvertently contributed to addictions by over-prescribing opioids. I have to say that this is less of an issue for pediatrics because I can't remember when I last prescribed an opioid. 


But you know, a lot of people that have chronic pain it's very easy for a physician to give them an opioid and then they can become addicted. When people are emotionally needy inside, sometimes the way they handle it is by taking a drug that helps him forget for a little while. So you really have to look at the underlying reasons why somebody would want to take something to begin with. What are their emotional needs that they need to escape life for a little while? This is really weird, but child abuse and neglect come in play because there are a lot of kids growing up who have experienced some kind of trauma and they are trying to escape. I have to tell you that almost every child who's been sexually abused as a teenager, abuses drugs. You just see that over and over again. 


With my patients that are going to college, I always tell them: don't try things out. Some things are just so highly addictive. Sometimes you want to see what that feels like. Well, there are some things you just don't try out. It's just like you don't step in front of a car to see what it feels like to get run over. 


So you don't start smoking cigarettes because nicotine is highly addictive. People have died when they’ve tried drugs; especially when your bodies are not used to these drugs. One of my secretaries in Baltimore, her son was found dead in an alley because he was not a regular drug user but he tried something out and it killed him. There are things you just do not try. I've had kids go off the deep end in college because they tried something that they should have never tried. 


Kids are now using electronic cigarettes or vaping. It's not like one is better necessarily than regular cigarettes. My words of advice would be to try to stay away from any of that.  But in order to change, you have to make the decision to change. In order to stop smoking, you have to make the decision that you want to stop smoking. In order to lose weight, you have to make the decision that you're going to lose weight. If everyone did what was recommended to stay healthy, the population would be much more healthy. 


The Importance of Family 


Elisaia: Please tell us a little about your children, where are they and what do they do? 


Dr. Grimm: I have two adult children. My daughter Joanne is married with two kids and lives in Mexico. She's been trained as both a social worker and as an educator. She's currently teaching 3rd grade in a bilingual school in Mexico. My son is married and lives in eastern Washington state. He’s a trained podiatrist in private practice with a former roommate from his residency. 


Elisaia: How do you feel about your son following in your footsteps? 


Dr. Grimm: I think it is great! He works very hard. Podiatry has really become a surgical subspecialty, so he does a lot of surgery. Actually I think he's somewhat consumed by his job, but he's married to an amazing woman that he met at church who is a molecular biologist; she does research on potato diseases for the Federal Drug Administration. 


Shinozaki: What do you do for fun... if you have time for fun. 


Dr. Grimm: I would say what I do for fun is mainly socializing with other people. I have good friends on Roosevelt Island and we usually have breakfast together on Saturdays or we have dinners together on occasion. I have friends that I can do cultural things with and I have a Bible study group that I go to every Tuesday early in the morning, and those people are very good friends. So the spiritual part of my life is actually very very important and when we were talking earlier about my jobs and how things sort of fell in my lap, I really feel that was God's grace in my life, not because I was necessarily more talented than other people but that I was just really blessed. I feel my children were also a blessing.


An Island of Change


Elisaia: How was Roosevelt Island different when you first moved here and how do you feel about the changes that have occurred since then? 


Dr. Grimm: Obviously the island had fewer inhabitant.


When I moved here, Southtown did not exist. At that time, we still had the ruins of the nursing residency and we also had a nice big playing field where 475 and 455 and 465 now are located, and that was a really nice. My son was very very active and virtually all of the island sports. I have very fond memories of watching them play on that field both for little league and flag football. When you were on that field, you were able to see both sides of the river, which was really nice. 


Although the island seems to have a little bit less green than what it used to have, I think that this was inevitable. In the old days the area where South Point Park and the Four Freedoms Park, that was all wild.  For a long time, we actually had no entry below what used to be Goldwater hospital, and on the east side of the island it was all wild shrubbery and trees and things of that nature. Roosevelt Island is now much more manicured than what it used to be, but I think that change is both good and bad, and that's just the way life is. 


Shinozaki: After serving for eight years on the RIOC Board, including service on the Real Estate Development Advisory Subcommittee, you decided to call it quits. What were the main reasons for leaving RIOC? 


Dr. Grimm: I actually enjoyed being on RIOC, although I found that my different jobs were somewhat consuming. Although I would always make time for the meetings, it was somewhat of a burden. The main reason I stepped down from RIOC had nothing to do with politics. 


Several years ago, on Memorial Day Weekend, three bad things happened one day after the other: on Saturday, I injured myself once again and that was quite discouraging; on Sunday I found that a very close friend of mine and colleague had just been diagnosed with bladder cancer; and on Monday my 29-year-old niece was killed by a train. This is in rural Pennsylvania. She was crossing the tracks, and this was not the kind of tracks where you see blinking lights. It was a very dangerous railroad crossing because it had a curve and she did not see the train coming. So I thought I really need to establish priorities in my life. 


Right now, I'm working as a volunteer for RIOC and perhaps I should maybe dedicate some of the time that I put out for RIOC for other priorities in my life. 


Elisaia: Did you get along with the current board and what do you consider your personal accomplishment since you joined RIOC? 


Dr. Grimm: I got along with the current board fine. That has never really been an issue. We had to make some rather significant votes while I was on the board and some of these votes were very unpopular. For example, I was involved in voting affirmatively for Four Freedoms Park. I also voted in favor of the Octagon field, with the artificial turf which unfortunately has to be replaced again. At the time, that field had become almost swampy; it was very muddy and was not draining well and I personally felt that the artificial turf was better than what we had then. But a lot of people in the community were upset about having fake grass there.


Shinozaki: If you could create a list of the things you like or enjoy most about Roosevelt Island what would they be? 


Dr. Grimm: Well, I love living by the water. I love watching the boats. I think seeing all the buildings lit up is really quite magnificent. I love the fact that we do have as much green here as we do and I've been very impressed with the beautiful and creative landscaping that Southtown has done. Things I love to do with one of my friends is walk all the way around the island... I really enjoy that! It is a small town so you run into a lot of people that you know and there's something very special about that. 


The Future 


Shinozaki: In 25 years from now, when the Time Capsule reopens, what do you want people to consider as your best career and life accomplishments? 


Dr. Grimm: I really don't know the answer to that. I would like to think that I would be remembered for my work ethic and character and the care that I've had for people. But by the time the Time Capsule is opened, I'm not sure anybody here will remember me. It's sort of like when I worked full time in the hospital and I had lots of leadership roles there, and I was there for about 20 years, and then I left for a while. Now that I'm back on a part-time basis, it was almost like I was erased – as if I had never existed! 


Elisaia: What is your vision of the future on Roosevelt Island? 


Dr. Grimm: I think, in 25 years, Roosevelt Island will change as it has has changed from 25 years ago. Back then there was much more in the way of affordable housing. There was senior housing, which made this a very nice place for families who or a moderate means to live. That has unfortunately changed.


Even though they say there's affordable housing here, it’s really not the same. And as time marches on, I think that Roosevelt Island will become more and more an island of the very rich and the very poor, and not as much of the people in between, which I think is a loss. I think the middle class is very very important for Roosevelt Island, and, when I ran for RIOC, one of the things that I was working for was affordable housing; but I found out that we really did not have very much control over that.


I'm pleased that building number 8 for Southtown is supposed to be all affordable, but the definition of affordable means one thing to one person and another thing to another person; so I hope that it is truly affordable and not just sort of affordable. 


I think that it's been really nice to have all the medical people on Roosevelt Island and the campus, and I would imagine that will continue. The things that I am afraid we will loose is the seniors, so although we have an active Senior Center, the question is for how long can that be maintained as seniors die out and young adults move in. When you go to 546 Main Street, which was previously the senior building, you see a lot of young adults coming out of those elevators. It would be nice if there was some reversal, but I'm not sure where that will happen. We really can't predict the future.




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