URMC Mourns Passing of Pediatric Cardiologist Chloe Alexson

August 22, 2014

Chloe Alexson, a longtime pediatric cardiologist at University of Rochester Medical Center and one of the most decorated teachers in the School of Medicine and Dentistry’s history, passed away Aug. 17 at the age of 85.

Known for the extraordinary rapports she established with patients and an uncanny photographic memory, Alexson worked at the hospital and university for 45 years.

“She could remember every single patient she had, and the cardiac anomaly that they’d come in with,” said Marilyn Brown, M.D., pediatric gastroenterologist, who has known Alexson since 1960. “But it wasn’t work to her. She was always upbeat.”

Alexson knew from the age of 2 that she wanted to be a doctor. She grew up in Oradell, a small town in northern New Jersey, and went on to Cornell University for her undergraduate education, remaining convinced that medicine was her calling despite the era’s view of female physicians. In a recent essay on the School of Medicine and Dentistry’s alumni page, Alexson wrote:

Even the medical school interviewers didn’t change my mind. ‘My God! Another female! Why don’t you go home and have babies?’ That, of course, was not my experience at the University of Rochester, where I still remember with pleasure each of my interviews, discussing baseball with Dr. William Bradford, ecology (a brand new idea) with Dr. Hermann Rahn, having tea with Dean Whipple, and most of all being greeted by name and as if I mattered by Hilda DeBrine and Harriet Purdy in the Dean’s office. I wouldn’t and couldn’t have gone to any other school.

After graduating from the School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1954, she stayed in Rochester, joining Strong Hospital’s pediatric cardiology team. Alexson and James A. Manning, M.D., would soon be joined by J. Peter Harris, M.D., and the trio would make up the core of the division for the next several decades.

Those who worked alongside her knew from the early going that she possessed tremendous clinical talent. But it was the extraordinary way that she would connect with her patients — staying after hours to watch over them and crying with them when they lost a child — that those around her continue to remember.

“Chloe didn’t need iCARE in order to care. She demonstrated it every day,” said Harris, professor emeritus in the Department of Pediatrics, Cardiology in the School of Medicine and Dentistry. “She taught me that each child was a mystery unto itself that needed to be solved, and showed how to go about it in a caring manner. That’s why many of her patients kept in touch with her long after she retired.”

Alexson also threw herself headlong into teaching. When lecturing, she famously eschewed slides and Powerpoint, instead leaning into the podium, staring out into the audience, and speaking entirely from memory. Quickly, she gained a reputation as a tough, but fair, instructor who was always clear about her expectations.

“With the trainees — the residents and the medical students — she was a little intimidating,” said David Siegel, M.D., M.P.H., chief of the Division of Pediatric Rheumatology at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital. “Never because she was mean, but she was very direct and said what was on her mind. She had high expectations and told you so in a way that didn’t leave any ambiguity about it.”

But Siegel and others appreciated her approach, so much so that the school’s annual teaching awards were often an afterthought.

“There’s no question in my mind that she was the best teacher I ever had in medical school,” said Elise van der Jagt, M.D., M.P.H., chief of the Division of Pediatric Hospital Medicine, who first met Alexson in 1973. “Year after year, she got either the medical school teaching award or the resident teaching award — it must have been close to 10 or 12 years in a row.”

Her long tenure spanned numerous changes in clinical care and many technological advances. But while she realized the benefits that came with the new tools, she continued to worry that they were replacing physicians’ ability to diagnose patients on their own.

“She didn’t really like the technology. She was a hands-on physician, and she would use the technology to confirm what she already knew from her physical exam,” said Mary Anne Rees, chief sonographer in the Division of Pediatric Cardiology. “She would tell you, if she had her way, I wouldn’t have had a job. Because she would always say ‘We (EKG) too much!’”

After retiring in 2001, she continued to volunteer in the School of Medicine and Dentistry alumni office. She stayed in close contact with many at the Medical Center, often getting breakfast with Harris or coffee with Rees.

She spent her final years in an independent living community, where she quickly grew weary of decimating her neighbors in afternoon Scrabble tournaments. Instead, she continued to find her way back to the University, where she’d pitch in with various alumni efforts.

In her alumni essay, she wrote that she was often asked what her wish is for current SMD students:

My answer is that I hope that when they’re my age, they bound out of bed in the morning eager to go to work as I still am. Every morning I thank God that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up — and that I was right.

Alexson is predeceased by her husband, William Vincent Alexson. She is survived by her three sons, Timothy (Alison) Alexson, Andrew (Gayle) Alexson, and Peter (Heather) Alexson and grandson, William Alexson.

Her service and interment were held privately; her family asks mourners to consider a donation to Golisano Children’s Hospital. More remembrances can be found in the guestbook of her Democrat & Chronicle obituary.

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