Her Passion is Caring for People with HIV
Catherine B. Small, M.D. ’77
School of Medicine
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” rings true for Catherine B. Small, M.D. ’77, and her extended family’s four generation connection to NYMC. A desire to educate, bond and heal patients with a humanistic approach to medicine is what attracted Small to New York Medical College. What kept her fueled was a love of internal medicine and compassion for her patients while making a difference.
Catherine B. Small, M.D. ’77, has been working on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic for the past 30 years. During that time, in her role as medical director of the HIV Program at Westchester Medical Center (WMC), she has cared for thousands of patients with the disease: cared for in the broadest sense. In addition to monitoring their physical health and medication compliance, she helps them locate housing and other social services, counsels them about safe sex and pregnancy, and steers them toward mental health care.
“There is so much more to being a doctor,” Small says. “You want to bring the humanistic sides of illness to the practice of medicine.”
This humanistic approach to medicine is what drew Small—not to mention four generations of her extended family—to New York Medical College. A 1974 graduate of Syracuse University, and the first in her family to attend college, Small had two dreams growing up: to become a neurosurgeon or a concert pianist. She felt that stage fright would prohibit her from playing the piano in front of large audiences, so instead of pursuing a career in music, she headed for medical school.
Her musical talent was not wasted. Rather, it made her the kind of creative and well-rounded student that the College is known for, she says, noting that husband (Robert Small, M.D. ’77) and daughter, M.D./M.P.H. candidate Alyson Small (Class of 2015), were both art history majors. They are also among a dozen family members who claim the College as their alma mater, beginning with Robert Small’s grandfather, Charles Turtz, M.D. Class of 1915, and including Arnold Turtz, M.D. ’48, Allan Small, M.D. ’48, John Small, M.D. ’54, Lisa Turtz, M.D. ’85, and Jeff Small, M.D. ’87. Her oldest daughter, Jennifer, is an M.D./Ph.D. candidate at Cornell/Rockefeller University, and her son William is currently applying to medical school.
Family legacy is a powerful driver and, had Catherine Small not met her future husband on the first day of medical school, she may never have joined the generations of Turtzes and Smalls whose affection for the College is renowned. Still, she had always wanted to be a doctor. “I was lucky,” she says. “I knew that was my path.”
Her interest in neurosurgery eventually gave way to a love of nternal medicine. During her hematology/oncology fellowship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital, where she worked with some of the first bone marrow transplant recipients, she became interested in the immune system. This curiosity sparked a fascination with infectious diseases, which led to a fellowship in that specialty at Montefiore Hospital/Albert Einstein College of Medicine. It was 1981, the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and Small and her colleagues were beginning to identify Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia in intravenous drug users. As she recounts, “We didn’t know it was due to HIV infection at that time.”
In HIV/AIDS, Small found her passion. While the science speaks to the researcher in her, it is the patients—typically impoverished, homeless, drug-addicted, and sometimes incarcerated—who speak to the caregiver. Her doctoring involves more than giving medicine: she provides social and emotional support to patients whose families have abandoned them. She works with social workers, mental health professionals and housing officials who help her patients rebuild their lives.
“HIV remains an illness with a social stigma,” she says. “Sometimes patients [who have no family to help with end-of-life decisions] want me to be their health proxy. One patient sent me a note from prison saying, ‘Will be out soon. That’s why I missed my appointment.’ I build relationships with my patients,” she continues, adding that she has followed some for more than 20 years. “They feel that we are part of a team.” Indeed, Small teaches her patients that with proper care, HIV/AIDS need no longer be a death sentence. “I educate them and make sure they’re empowered about their health.”
In addition to running WMC’s HIV program, Small is its infectious diseases consultant. She is an associate attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases, and an associate professor of medicine who teaches medical students and supervises fellows. Plus, she runs a research laboratory that focuses on HIV infection and aging, including malignancies, and new treatments for HIV. Her research interests also include HIV/Hepatitis C co-infection and sinusitis.
She says simply, “I try to make a difference in my patients’ lives, and that’s what makes me feel good about being a doctor.”