Alumni Profiles: Kathie-Ann Joseph’95 and David Joseph’95

From Study Partners to Life Partners, Two Surgeons Find Balance Amid a Pandemic

Julia Hickey

When arriving medical students Kathie-Ann Ramsay’95 and David Joseph’95 met at a first-year lecture, he remembered what she had forgotten: This was not their first meeting. As teens attending different high schools, they had studied together one afternoon with a mutual friend at the central Brooklyn Public Library. To prove it, he reminded her what she wore that day at the card catalogs: “She had that 80s white polo with the collar flipped up and the jeans jacket” with matching sneakers, he recalls. “That’s just classic.”

“He even remembered my shoes,” Kathie adds with persisting disbelief.

Kathie and David in 2018. Photo Jennifer Escaravage.

After studying, they parted homeward to nearby Brooklyn neighborhoods: She on the 2 train to Flatbush, where her parents had settled from Jamaica, he on the 3 to Canarsie, where his parents had settled from Trinidad. Her path continued to Harvard College and his to NYU, before their paths crossed again at medical school.

While the personality of that popped collar stuck with David for years, perhaps more profound was the impression his very remembering made upon Kathie. A self-described bookworm, David seemed unaware of her welcoming cues in the weeks that followed in medical school, so a classmate played matchmaker by inviting them to a small study group.

Their paths have not diverged since. Today, both are surgeons living in Brooklyn and balancing the duties of academic medicine and family. They have two sons, ages 18 and 22.

Kathie is chief of breast services at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital, where she was Physician of the Year in 2015. She directs breast health outreach and patient navigation, helping women access transportation and social services if necessary to complete breast cancer treatment. She also teaches surgery and population health at NYU.

David is chair of orthopedic surgery at Elmhurst Hospital in Queens, New York. The public hospital serves one of the most diverse communities in the world.

“I always thought I should give back and take care of patients that are like me or like my parents,” David says.

When Elmhurst was the epicenter of New York City’s coronavirus outbreak, David worked nights to relieve attendings by supervising COVID-19 wards. During that time, the motivational quotes he has pinned up for surgical residents took on new meaning, such as one from Benjamin Franklin: “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”

“That’s just from being in ortho,” David says. “That is true in life, too.”

Elmhurst had a plan. But when the surge was more like a tsunami, and personal protective equipment was scarce, and there were no more beds, and patients filled overflow tents, another quote gained relevance: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

“That’s from Mike Tyson,” David says.

“There was a lot of mobilization. Eventually, FEMA came, the military came, and they helped us out a great deal in terms of staff getting rest,” he says. “We bent but didn’t break.”

Kathie contracted COVID-19 in March 2020—likely from a patient—and recovered, though her shortness of breath lingered for months. David also missed some work owing to fever and fatigue. His antibodies suggest that he may have been infected as well.

For her part during the COVID-19 surge, Kathie maintained the essential functions of the breast service at Bellevue while her colleagues with critical care experience joined the front lines. She made difficult decisions about who would receive surgery, since being in the hospital posed an additional threat of infection for patients. Medicine became, even more than usual, about pivoting to new strategies and weighing risks. An avid tennis fan, Kathie describes the importance of thinking on one’s feet and its parallels to medicine, especially surgery: “It’s interesting watching great tennis players—like Federer, Nadal, Djokovich, Serena—especially when they are not winning. They figure out as they are playing how to adjust their game, and they find a way to win.”

Kathie’s competitive streak motivates them both.

“She inspires me to speak up and stand up for myself. When I need that little extra inspiration, I can rely on her to give it to me,” David says. She, on the other hand, finds his presence calming.

“When I have issues, I can go to him, and he grounds me.”

“She’s the fire. I’m the ice,” David says.


It Takes Two

At the Josephs’ wedding shortly after medical school, attendees from both sides of their families delighted in encountering familiar faces. “We didn’t realize that there was so much overlap in terms of friends and family even though we didn’t know each other growing up,” Kathie said. Although their parents came from opposite sides of the Caribbean, their worlds were close in New York City, and with one another, Kathie and David felt at home.

Kathie’s mother, a nurse, worked nights so she could spend days with her children. Kathie’s father worked at Pan Am’s Manhattan office and studied in the evenings to earn a business degree at Baruch College.

“I remember seeing my father studying and asking him, ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’ At home, it wasn’t unusual to see people working hard,” she says.

David’s father, a carpenter, built a successful business manufacturing caskets for funeral homes across Brooklyn. Atlantic Casket was a three-floor workshop and showroom on Atlantic Avenue. David’s mother, a seamstress and pattern maker who made samples for designer Diane von Furstenberg, sewed liners for the caskets. Perhaps it’s not surprising that, given his parents’ skilled hands, David fell for surgery in medical school. (“I was doing a trauma case in the middle of the night with one of the residents and attendings. Just a hip fracture. I thought it was so cool. They let me do some of the drilling. The last screw they let me put in,” he remembers.) Seeing his mother’s hard work, David pitched in to help around their home and carried that experience forward.

“Be flexible. Help each other when you can. And get some sleep.” That’s his pared-down wisdom for doctors who are coupled—and not just during a pandemic. It helped them get through their years of training. Kathie completed a residency at NYU Langone Medical Center, rose to be chief resident, and completed a breast oncology fellowship at Columbia. David completed a residency at New York Orthopedic Hospital, followed by a fellowship in orthopedic trauma at Harvard’s Massachusetts General Hospital. At the same time and with the help of their families, they raised two sons.

“We both have very stressful careers. I couldn’t do what I do without David’s support,” Kathie says. He is a very hands-on dad. You need a partner, and it just isn’t going to work otherwise.”


Operating Against Assumptions

As Black doctors, Kathie and David also lend one another a supportive ear when encountering their outsize share of implicitly biased interactions, both inside and outside the workplace.

There was the time David waited in the NYU parking lot, dressed in full scrubs, white coat, and stethoscope, for his car to be retrieved. A woman handed him the keys to her Mercedes as if he were the attendant. He handed them back. Or the time police pulled him over in his luxury Audi with MD plates. The officer asked David, who was wearing scrubs, if he owned the car.

“It’s incredible how many times you are mistaken for anything but the doctor or the surgeon,” Kathie says. “I could be with a whole team of doctors, students, and interns, like when I was chief resident. I am asking all the questions, but they are looking at and answering to my white male junior residents.”

“The other thing which I’ve gotten dozens of times, is they call me Dr. Brown,” David says. “How do you go from Joseph to Brown?”

David emphasizes that there is always a good story to counteract the bad.

 “I operated on a patient that had a swastika on his back. He was very thankful for the operation. He said, ‘Listen doc. I was very young when I had it done. I am very sorry.’ He was one of the most appreciative patients I ever had, so it goes both ways.”

Kathie’s mentor, pioneering colorectal surgeon Kenneth Forde’59, had warned she would find herself in uncomfortable situations while practicing medicine. As a Black student in medicine before the civil rights movement, Dr. Forde was humiliated during training when a surgeon ordered him out of an operating room.

“Dr. Forde’s advice to me was not to react to every incident that would come my way,” she says. “To keep focused on the big picture that I was trying to accomplish.” That attitude served her well in training, she says. But now that she and David are advanced in their careers, they hope for better, especially for their sons.

“You have had two crises in 2020: the COVID pandemic and Black Lives. I think that has transformed society, and I don’t think that can be ignored in medicine, either. The open conversations that we are now having weren’t possible even 20 years ago. So I think it’s a start,” Kathie says.

Honeymoon in Jamaica in 1995

They are also aware of vast disparities in health care access within their patient populations. Culturally competent patient navigation involves assessing barriers to care, especially the extended treatments for breast cancer. “Is the patient facing eviction? Do they need to take two buses to treatment? Will they miss too much work because of surgery and chemotherapy, ordering MRIs, and all these tests? Will they lose their job? They might not think their doctors care to hear all of that,” Kathie says.

But to save a life, she does care to hear all of that. Working with her team of patient navigators, they do their best to connect patients with support.


Giving Back

“We feel that our careers have been about giving back to other people,” Kathie says. That includes their work as mentors, especially at VP&S. Kathie is past president of the VP&S Alumni Association and is a leader in its new Women in Medicine Collective. Both are involved in the Kenneth A. Forde Diversity Alliance to support the next generation of underrepresented minorities in medicine.

But looking back on 25 years practicing medicine, the Josephs agree on their most significant accomplishment: their two sons. “They are respectful, kind, and loving,” David says.

The couple suggests that to be a “Joseph”—in addition to relishing an excellent tennis match—means to help others. Neither son wants to be a doctor, having chosen to study computer science and economics. In the context of pandemic and politics, “They are still trying to figure out their way in the world. And they have had to put up with having two parents who are doctors. Surgeons, no less,” Kathie says.

The Josephs just want their kids to do what makes them happy and, in so doing, to find their own ways to give back.