Roosevelt Island Pediatrician Katherine Teets Grimm

Because Dr. Katherine Grimm Seeks a Simpler Life...

David Stone
Dr. Katherine Teets Grimm At Work on Roosevelt Island
Dr. Katherine Teets Grimm At Work on Roosevelt Island
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

When you're as capable and admired as Dr. Katherine Grimm has been all her professional life, they call you, seeking help on all kinds of things, but this time, it was a different sort of call.

Fate Comes Knocking

"I wanted to make my life more simple," Dr. Katherine Grimm says without any hesitation when asked about ending her eight years of service with RIOC.

No apparent doubt betrayed her firm commitment.

After a remarkable career spent meeting complex, scientific and humane challenges, why this sudden move to simplicity? Some Roosevelt Islanders wondered if resigning from the RIOC Board was a protest.

But as brilliant as she is unassuming, Dr. Grimm's life and career have been guided by a passion that is less visible to most of us.

"Spiritual things are my driving force," she told me, almost as an aside.

And it was a bundle of hard spiritual signals that inspired her to alter the direction of her life, to make it more simple and, without saying so directly, more enriched.

Summer was ending. Labor Day weekend started with the return of a nagging problem. Dr. Grimm re-injured her left knee. Adjusting to painful limits on her mobility, she continued working through the holiday.

On Sunday, concentrating on a child abuse case, she telephoned a "dear friend," just a year older than herself, asking for his insight as a consultant.

"He told me he'd recently undergone several operations to fight metastatic cancer."

Ever an optimist and a believer in miracles, Dr. Grimm waved her hand. "Metastatic cancer doesn't mean you're going to die," she declared. "People recover."

Because her pediatric practice is also a business, she was in her office on Monday, Labor Day, when she got a call from her daughter, Joanne.

"I have sad news for you," Joanne told her

Trisha, her 29 year old niece, mother of a three month old child, had been killed when her car was plowed into by a train at a dangerous railroad crossing. Neither her baby nor her husband were in the car.

“This is it," Dr. Grimm said to herself. "I have to cut back.”

Making the Move

Cutting back, in her explanation, sounds more like a trade off, cutting back on work, yes, but stepping up family engagements.

Her daughter in Virginia and her son, Joshua, who lives on the West Coast, have been "very vocal. They were on my back to make myself more available."

"Quitting RIOC was my first step," she says, on her way to a simpler life, but her resignation, tendered to RIOC President Susan Rosenthal less than a month after that fateful Labor Day weekend, came with a mix and pride and regret.

Serving on the Board since being nominated in a popular vote in 2008, she is proud of her contribution in seeing FDR Four Freedoms Park built, and smaller things, like voting in favor of artificial turf for the soccer field, add to her a sense of achievement. But there are regrets too.

"Look back at the the statements we made for the WIRE when we were running for the election. We all wanted to keep affordable housing."

Dr. Grimm is as aware as anyone that affordable housing is a vanishing Roosevelt Island value. Disappointment over the sale of Eastview, now known as Roosevelt Landings, and removal from the Mitchell Lama program brings a frown and a shake of her head. The Board, she says, was bypassed when RIOC made the deal.

"546 used to be all seniors, but now..."

With Christian Faith as Her Guide

Spend more than five minutes with Dr. Grimm, and you know that optimism will soon bleed through any shield of disappointment.

"I have experienced miracles in my own life," she is not hesitant to point out, and she's "collected stories of God doing amazing things in people's lives." 

Her Christianity is not just faith, it's grounded in many genuine experiences, and it keeps her buoyant.

Working Her Way Here

Dr. Grimm's life began in Plainfield, New Jersey, an historic town settled by Quakers in 1684, where she grew up. 

During her senior year at Muhlenberg College, her mother suggested she give Rutgers Medical School, then in its infancy, a try. She joined a small minority of women at the school before moving on to the Mount Sinai School of Medicine to finish her degree. Her internship and residency were completed at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Following a year in ambulatory pediatrics at Mount Sinai, she returned to Johns Hopkins as chief resident in the Outpatient Department, also developing her love for teaching by joining their faculty. This lasted two years until she was recruited by DrKurt Hirschhorn, a department chair she was destined to work under for two decades, for a return to Mount Sinai.

Until 1995, she handled multiple management assignments, including more than a decade as vice chair, but mainly headed the pediatric emergency room. Seldom out of demand, she also taught, lectured and maintained her private practice.

It was during her tenure at Mount Sinai that Dr. Grimm moved to and started helping families on Roosevelt Island.

"One thing I failed to mention to you is that I do home visits on newborns. It's a lot of fun," read the note Dr. Grimm emailed after our interview.

A love for families and how children are raised have informed her life's work from the start, and that passion led to a career switch in 1997. Originally asked to help find someone to take a job as medical director at the New York Center for Children, she ended up in the position herself after Dr. Hirschhorn's retirement altered her work environment at Mount Sinai.

The nonprofit describes itself as "a child-friendly Center, providing free, comprehensive evaluation and therapy services to victims of child abuse and their families. NYCC also offers professional training on the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of child abuse."

By then, she and her husband had lived in Rivercross for three years. They'd entered a lottery for a three bedroom apartment in 1987 on the advice of friends already living here. Even with a low number, it took five years before they were called, in 1992, because demand was so high.

Treating children on Roosevelt Island started when the founder of the pediatric practice, Harvey Sudzin, suffered a stroke and she was asked to fill in. In a serendipitous turn, she found herself looking for another doctor to cover Mondays through Thursdays, after learning that Dr. Sudzen wasn't able to return. She'd take care of patients on Fridays.

With an office downstairs, she split her time between her main job at the Center and private practice. Her plan to fill in only on Fridays collapsed as pediatricians she hoped would offer services on the other days came and went, none staying for long.

Eventually, she found herself spending half her time in each location.

Rounding Out a Career in Caring

At the New York Center for Children her concentration on child abuse calls for as much scientific expertise as it does healing.

When I asked Dr. Grimm about the emotional difficulties inherent her work, her answer showed that she'd already given it a lot of thought.

"You deal with trauma all the time," she said matter-of-factly.

Then, she added an unexpected insight.

"My passion is distinguishing between accidental and intentional injuries. You look for certain things and rely on other doctors' support. The suffering of wrongly accused families is terrible."

Funding difficulties have reduced her time spent at the Center, and given recent events, Dr. Grimm would like to follow suit with less in private practice.

She notes that it isn't just a matter of tending to patients. "It's a business," with all the demands any other small business must manage.

"It’s a wonderful practice," she says, 'very international, very interesting.”

And she still considers it "a privilege to practice medicine," one she enjoys. But with her commitment to a simpler life, after RIOC, "Step two is finding someone to share and eventually take over the practice."

Whoever that doctor is, she or he will have very big shoes to fill, shoes much larger than those for which the cliche normally allows.