By Beth Kwon
Howard Grossman’s first job wasn’t exactly easy. “It was soul-destroying,” he says of his residency at Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, where in the 1980s he saw some of the earliest AIDS patients. “The hospital was sitting on a powder keg, mostly because of the number of IV drug users. There were a lot of very poor people and immigrants from the Caribbean, especially from Haiti.” Grossman graduated from GS’s Postbaccalaureate Premedical Pre-health Program in 1977, attended medical school at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, and was immediately thrust into the national epidemic.
Grossman, 53, has obviously seen better days since. Thanks to effective treatments, today there are 39.5 million people living with HIV globally, according to a 2006 study by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS). Still, more virulent strains make the disease resistant to drugs and elusive to a vaccine and cure. The number of new infections is steadily increasing. “In this country over 40,000 cases are diagnosed each year, which is unforgivable, and completely related to the fact that we don’t do prevention very well,” says Grossman, who is now the medical director of the Conant Foundation, a San Francisco-based non-profit dedicated to HIV education. He points out an ironic paradox: “As more anti-retroviral therapy gets out there, there are more people who need healthcare and resources, and as they get healthier they are in a position to spread the disease more. Unfortunately the fear-based messages we’ve used for the past 26 years don’t work for people who didn’t live through the early days of AIDS.”
Over the course of his career Grossman has played a pivotal part in the movement to educate and fight HIV. Seven years ago he helped form the American Academy of HIV Medicine, the first organization of its kind to bring together HIV specialists. He’s traveled to Asia to set up Nepal’s first HIV clinic and most recently was in Russia, a country with one of the world’s fastest-growing epidemics, particularly among young people: About 80 percent of those with HIV are between 15 and 30 years of age, according to UNAIDS.
Grossman credits Columbia with helping make him a better doctor. Originally intending to become a lawyer, he studied political science at Haverford College until, as he explains wryly, “I realized I couldn’t lie for a living, so I decided to be a doctor.” He enrolled in GS’s postbac program after graduation and met a population of students like himself, who came to medicine with a bit of life experience. “So many people go to college with the idea that they’ll be a doctor without really knowing what it’s about,” he says. “But when people come back to it in their 20s and 30s it’s because they choose medicine, rather than fall into it. For me Columbia was a really important growing experience.”
And despite the challenges that lay ahead for him, Grossman’s compassion for his patients and devotion to his work has never faltered. “I always wanted to do something that felt ‘necessary,’” he says. “During the worst part of the epidemic and still today, I rarely wonder why I’m getting up in the morning. Not everybody can say that.”