Dr. Tamara New Aims to Take Sickle Cell Program to New Heights

Tamara New, M.D., is the director of the sickle cell disease program at Johns Hopkins All Children's

Tamara New, M.D., is the director of the sickle cell disease program at Johns Hopkins All Children's

Published in Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital - Winter 2023

Tamara New, M.D., has known Cassandra Josephson, M.D., since their undergraduate days at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts.

New and Josephson followed similar career paths, each studying pediatric hematology-oncology and landing at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University where they worked together for nearly 15 years.

After Josephson left to become director of the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Cancer & Blood Disorders Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, New and her husband, Leonza, came for a visit and decided this would be a great place to live and work.

New started a discussion with Josephson, who had an opening for director of the sickle cell disease program, New’s specialty.

“Then I came and met folks here and really fell in love with the place and what the program was doing here,” says New, who has four adult children with Leonza.

New joined the Johns Hopkins All Children’s medical staff in January and now leads one of the largest sickle cell programs on Florida’s west coast. She talked recently about her background and how she chose her specialty.

Did you always want to be a doctor?

I always wanted to be a doctor. From the time I was about 3 years old, I said I wanted to be a doctor and people would try to talk me into other things. Dad was an engineer and thought I would make a great engineer, but I told him no. I want to be a doctor.

What pulled you toward medicine?

Mother was a nurse, and I had a cousin who was much older than me. When I was young, she aspired to become a doctor. She ended up becoming a Ph.D., not a medical doctor.

How did you come to choose sickle cell disease as your specialty?

When I was in medical school, I had a mentor who was a pediatric hematologist-oncologist and he made it seem fun to take care of patients with cancer and blood disorders. Then when I went to residency, in taking care of patients with sickle cell, I felt like I resonated with them. Not because I ever had any family members with sickle cell or knew anybody with sickle cell. But I just felt like they needed an advocate. I was fortunate that the resident who was supervising me when I met my first sickle cell patient as a medical student was very, very compassionate and was very gentle with the patient and explained to me how devastating the pain these patients have and how we could help. That inspired me.

Sometimes people will ask me why sickle cell? For me, part of it is because it is a disease that predominantly affects African Americans and Latino Americans. It is a disease that patients can sometimes become stigmatized and misunderstood and so my goal is to help people understand the complexities of the disease. Every patient is different.

Most people don’t understand the pain sickle cell patients endure. Can you speak to that?

This resident described it to me as the worst pain that a patient could have. It's worse than having a kidney stone, worse than a woman in labor because it can be all over. It may not affect just one part of the body. That stuck with me.

When I was in my fellowship training at Columbia University, I had a young patient who, when our pain service asked her what her pain felt like, she said it feels like you're peeling my muscles off of my bone. And she was 6 years old.

Some new sickle cell medications have come on the market in recent years, but it seems fewer patients than might be expected are using them. Can you address that?

For about 25-30 years, we have had hydroxyurea and so families are very familiar with hydroxyurea, but still not everybody wants to use it. It is considered chemotherapy and has to be monitored. So sometimes they don't want to come as frequently to the hospital or they may be nervous about the side effects from the medication.

These newer medications have been around now for two to three years, mostly, and so I believe the patient community is still assessing how much comfort they have with some of these medications.

I love that my patients now have more options than they did 10-15 years ago. I am hopeful that now that we have these new agents that these companies will continue to come up with other agents that have better safety profiles and fewer undesired side effects.

What’s something people might find surprising about you?

I’m from York, Maine. My parents were both from Alabama, but my father got a job in Maine with the Department of Defense as an engineer and brought my mom there. They got married there and raised me and my sister there.

What do you do to take your mind off work?

Pre-pandemic, my husband and I would love to go to the opera or Broadway shows. We would go to the movie theater almost every Friday night. That was our date night. We have a strong faith and so church is also part — usually a big part — of our weekends and then family.

Post-pandemic we transitioned to watching movies and series on Netflix and Hulu and things like that but also finding new outdoor spaces to explore. We’re new to Florida and the St. Pete/Tampa Bay area so we’re excited to discover some fun outdoor places.

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