Cathie Borrie, MPH ’81
The Many Lives of Cathie Borrie
Although she is not a cat, Cathie Borrie has lived at least nine lives. Her earliest career aspiration was acting, but she dropped out of theatre school. After earning a nursing degree and working a few years, she left clinical care to become a research assistant in infectious diseases. An avowed lover of learning across many disciplines, she completed a Master of Public Health at Johns Hopkins in 1981, followed by a law degree. After a brief stint practicing law, Borrie’s next stop was in health administration.
Up to this point, most of her adult life had been spent as either a professional student or working in the demanding fields of nursing, law, and health administration. Founding and running a successful business offered greater freedom and new challenges. Her store catered to babies and young children, and she blended public health with entrepreneurship by offering clients a range of information and services from breastfeeding classes to advice on immunizations from an epidemiologist.
The year of learning how to learn
Preceding this series of achievements, the versatile and curiosity-driven Borrie did not have an easy childhood. Her brother died and her parents divorced, which forced her to change schools. She was “put in the class for not-so-smart kids. Once you’re in it, it’s impossible to get out.” After years of desperately working herself out of the “stupid class,” she finally gained confidence in her own intelligence at the School of Hygiene and Public Health. Biostatistics at Johns Hopkins had seemed impossible until “I learned how to learn. I worked 7 days a week, like most of us did. After dinner, I’d go by myself to a basement classroom with a blackboard and write out the signs and symptoms and whatever I could remember about the subject. I did that for every class, and I think I got a 98 for the course in Animal Epidemiology!”
The experience was so profound, Borrie recalled, that “It gave me myself back. I could become. Academically, I never looked back. I also received an injection of arts and culture that I was really starving for. It was a huge boost, and it’s all still in my blood.”
She calls her MPH “one of the best years I ever had.” Every Friday, she and her friends attended the medical school’s cocktail hour featuring guest speakers ranging from pro baseball players to symphony conductors. At free Sunday concerts in Turner Auditorium, Borrie sat transfixed by the soaring music. “I’ll never forget what a beautiful picture that was—the science, the art, the culture. You could get both sides of your brain fed at Hopkins.”
Borrie, a Canadian from British Columbia, lived in the International Residence, where part of the students’ American education included watching the TV show “Dallas” every week. She was a frequent recipient of what she termed “Hopkins kindness.” For example, since Borrie couldn’t easily travel home one holiday weekend, her injury prevention professor, Sue Baker, invited Borrie to join her and her husband Tim at their cabin.
Along with her multicultural classmates, Borrie also bonded with another Canadian: the school’s dean, D. A. Henderson, whom she called “such an accessible man. He would talk to students about the WHO smallpox program, which was just so exciting and thrilling. The students had a barbecue with sack races, and we invited the professors—and D. A. came!”
Borrie was determined to meet with Henderson personally before she graduated, and they had “a wonderful conversation. He told me, ‘No matter what you go on to do, you’ll always be working with other people, and you need to be sure that they get credit.’” Henderson, for his part, recalls that Borrie expressed the ambition to become prime minister of Canada one day.
“Because that one year did so much for my life,” Borrie said, “I’ve had Hopkins in my will for years. I would never leave Hopkins out, since I want to support an institution that can foster such wonderful things in human beings. I haven’t left money to any other institution, and I’ve been to many.”
The story of the story
“I had a very rich and fortunate life,” Borrie recalled, “and I was able to pursue my own interests in a way that women in my mother’s generation had not been able to.” Then her mother developed dementia and Parkinson’s and couldn’t walk or care for herself. “All the things I had been doing came to a stop, and I went from a lot of activity to a very quiet place, just the two of us. I started to listen more intently to things she was saying. They were very insightful and poetic. I had worked with a lot of older people and enjoyed being with them, but I hadn’t expected all the beauty that I heard from my mother.”
Borrie began taping their conversations, which served as a muse to trigger her memories and helped her find her writing voice. After trying to read about Alzheimer’s to better understand her mother’s condition, Borrie realized that most books on the subject were “very dry ‘how-to’ books and I couldn’t make myself read them,” so she decided to write one herself. What began as jotted-down vignettes emerged into a memoir, written and polished during a one-year writing program in Vancouver that Borrie described as “a life-changing event for me.” She also credits Hopkins for giving her a rigorous structure that “made it easy for me to slip into the disciplined world of writing. I didn’t procrastinate, and got right down to it.”
Borrie’s memoir, The Long Hello: Memory, My Mother, and Me, reads like fiction, and her writing has been described as “lyrical,” “spare,” and simply “Joy!” by none other than Maya Angelou. This approach, Borrie says, “engages people to come into the world of a short story, rather than having information thrown at them. My mom’s illness is what draws the book together, but it’s not the only thing the book’s about. Readers can still learn important information about caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, but it’s more of an osmotic process. It was exactly the same at Hopkins, where we had programs to teach people about safe sex through theater, a form that’s pleasing and entertaining.”
The Long Hello was originally self-published in 2010, when Borrie was invited to do a reading at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Meet Me at MoMA program for people living with Alzheimer’s and their care partners. In spite of the difficult subject matter, the economic downturn, and the increasingly tight publishing market, the book was then acquired and published in Canada by Simon & Schuster in 2015. Arcade Publishing (Skyhorse), just released the United States edition in April 2016, and a stage adaptation has been completed.
For Cathie Borrie, earning an MPH at Hopkins was a deeply humane education, in the broadest sense of the word. She sums it up this way – “I feel a profound emotional connection with Hopkins that applies to many aspects of my life, and which I fully expect to last my lifetime.”
To learn more about Cathie, please visit her website at cathieborrie.com