Division of Pulmonary & Critical Care Faculty Profile – Cathy Bonham

Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, the oldest daughter in a blue-collar working family. I left home to go to Harvard University at eighteen, having never actually seen the University or the East Coast, since we didn’t have that kind of money for travel. I was the only kid I knew who “went away” for college. After college I worked for a non-profit medical society, then went to University of Michigan medical school and internal medicine-pediatrics residency, then University of Chicago for pulmonary and critical care medicine specialty training. I started at UVA in 2018 and have been building a career as a specialist in a rare lung disease called sarcoidosis, and interstitial lung disease also called pulmonary fibrosis.

Why research?
I’m trained as a medical doctor to take care of patients, which I love, but I still spend about 75% of my time doing patient-centered research. That is because I found early in my career that taking care of people makes me think of all the ways we can make the care better – whether it is developing new treatments, new ways to diagnose disease, new ways to understand disease. I have a restless spirit when it comes to these things, I don’t like to move on until I know the answer or have at least done my best to find the answer. One of my favorite authors is Maya Angelou. She once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” This desire to know better and do better is why I chose a research-oriented career.

What brought you to Charlottesville?
Two things – the UVA pulmonary division, and my husband. First, my interest in pulmonary fibrosis is a huge focus for the UVA pulmonary division and I was offered great support for developing my research program and my sarcoidosis clinic here. We are a center of excellence for pulmonary fibrosis and sarcoid, and have world-class research and patient care, with a critical mass of faculty who are engaged. Second, my dear husband of 15 years just couldn’t wait to get out of the polar vortex in the Midwest. He was ready to sell the snowblower the moment he heard about the opportunity.

What excites you about your work?
Innovation. I love taking an idea, perhaps a new discovery from another field, and seeing if it could apply in a meaningful way to help a patient someday. In this way, scientific discovery is like a glimpse into the future.

Proudest / greatest achievement outside the professional realm?
I’m a mom to four kids!

Next life?
Same but with someone who answers my email for me and does the laundry.

What are you usually doing on the weekend?
Weekends are mostly family time, which is anything from Cub Scouts to baseball to barbecue.

How did you meet your partner?
We met on a blind date, set up by my best friend’s mom, at the local hot dog stand. I found out later that my husband hates hot dogs. All the makings of a fine romantic comedy there.

What’s one thing you always have in your fridge?
We have a bottle of pancake syrup that we bought on vacation 9 years ago. It’s still sealed and is older than my oldest child.

What’s the most unusual thing you have ever eaten?
In the Amazon rainforest in Peru, where I worked with an outreach group during residency, there are all kinds of interesting foods. I didn’t try the freshly fried rainforest tree grubs, they are about as big as your thumb. I did try the juice from aloe plants made into a kind of goopy shake, and Pisco, which is like a cocktail with brandy and egg in it.

Favorite vacation/activity spot
Favorite vacation spot is Hawaii with extended family.

What is a talent or skill that you don’t have that you wish you did?
I wish I could dance well, or skillfully. I still try.

What was your first job, how old were you?
I worked at Kiddieland, a children’s amusement park where I sold three-foot licorice whips, popsicles, and popcorn. I was 17.

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