Pediatric Giant Passes, Leaving Legacy of Enhanced Children’s Care

Dr. Hoekelman chaired URMC’s Department of Pediatrics for a decade

March 09, 2013

During the 10 years Robert A. Hoekelman, M.D., was chair of the University of Rochester Medical Center’s Department of Pediatrics, he restructured the department, created an identity for what is now Golisano Children’s Hospital and founded a collaborative research center to bring together all researchers working on childhood diseases regardless of whether they were faculty in Pediatrics. His focus was always doing what was best for children and that focus was how he inspired those who worked for and alongside him. Dr. Hoekelman, 85, died Thursday in Canandaigua.

“Dr. Hoekelman was passionate about the best interests of children,” said Elizabeth R. McAnarney, M.D., chair emerita of the Department of Pediatrics who served as chair from 1993 to 2006. “When he had a goal perhaps that others had not envisioned, he would energetically pursue it very successfully.”

Dr. Hoekelman was recruited to the Department of Pediatrics as the director of pediatric ambulatory care by Robert J. Haggerty, M.D., third chair of the Department. Dr. Hoekelman became the Department’s fifth chair from 1983 to 1993, a formative time in the department’s history and in the development of the Finger Lakes Region’s only children’s hospital. He created new divisions within Pediatrics, including Emergency Medicine, Critical Care, Immunology/Allergy/Rheumatology, and Nephrology, and he opened the hospital’s first Pediatric Critical Care Unit. He also renovated and expanded the hospital’s very busy Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

Dr. Hoekelman didn’t stop there, knowing that pediatric services needed an identity within the medical center and the community. He established the Strong Children’s Medical Center, which became Golisano Children’s Hospital (under McAnarney, the sixth chair of Pediatrics). And he was instrumental in the creation of Sandy Strong, the hospital’s mascot, which was originally created by local artist John Kuchera, who died last year. Three decades later, she continues to be a pervasive symbol of the hospital.

Having expanded the services the hospital could offer to children and their families, Dr. Hoekelman knew more and more families would be traveling from out of town to receive care for their children. When the idea of opening a Ronald McDonald House was brought to his attention, he immediately saw the need. It took a community effort to build the house, but it was Dr. Hoekelman who won over the support of the University and persuaded it to lease – for free – the land on Westmoreland where the house stands today. He also helped raise money for the house and persuaded faculty members to join him in the effort. In 1993, the Ronald McDonald House honored him with the Crystal Award for his support.

The University’s pediatric research was stretched across 27 departments and divisions at the beginning of Dr. Hoekelman’s tenure, so to foster collaboration and communication, Dr. Hoekelman created the Strong Children’s Research Center in 1989. At the time that encompassed 85 Pediatric faculty members and 75 faculty members from 26 other parts of the University. Harvey Cohen, M.D., Ph.D., was the associate chair for research and development at the time, and he remembered thinking the center was a brilliant way to bring people together.

“He was very inviting, never territorial and very inclusive,” said Cohen, who went on to become chair of Pediatrics at Stanford University from 1993 to 2006. “People saw that and wanted to be part of what his vision was.”

Cohen said he took the idea of the center with him to Stanford and took notes on Dr. Hoekelman’s leadership style. “He taught me how to delegate, delegating both responsibility and authority. A lot of people like to delegate responsibility but not the authority with it.” Cohen said Dr. Hoekelman taught him people are most successful when they have both.

Dr. Hoekelman believed his role as a leader extended to supporting recruitment and promotion of women and minorities in his department. He established a formal program to increase diversity in the department, appointing a faculty member to spend half of his time on the effort. When Dr. Hoekelman was appointed chair in 1983, 25 percent of the faculty were female. By 1993, it jumped to 40 percent. The number of female full professors went from zero to seven. He also championed the work of nurses and nurse practitioners.

“From practicing, he knew how important collaborating with nursing colleagues is,” McAnarney said.

 Dr. Hoekelman's commitment to the community started early in his career as the first pediatrician in Canandaigua in 1955. In addition to establishing a large pediatric practice, he served as president of the Chamber of Commerce, was a founding member of the Board and President of Sonnenberg Gardens, where he was instrumental in achieving state support for the historic home and gardens. He chaired the local hospital fundraising committee and was named Mr. Canandaigua 1968.

“All of these commitments to the community demonstrated his energy, goal directedness and willness to push hard to achieve his vision of how to improve the life of a community,” said Haggerty, who stayed active in the department after he stepped down as chair in 1976. “This same vision and determination became evident on a larger scale after he became a full-time faculty member at the University of Rochester and continued with his major roles in national organizations.”

When Dr. Hoekelman stepped down as chair and McAnarney took over, a pediatric chief resident at that time, Jeffrey Kaczorowski, M.D., with another chief resident, saw an opportunity to harness their energy for a program called Pediatric Links with the Community/Child Advocacy Resident Education Track (PLC/CARE). The program aims to help residents, fellows and medical students understand community-based and -oriented care. Specifically, it focuses on children who lack access to care because of socio-economic reasons or because of special health needs.

The program was exactly the type of teaching Hoekelman believed in and he became the faculty advisor for it.

“He had a right to have some time off to himself and focus on other things, but that wasn’t who he was,” said Kaczorowski., co-director of PLC, an associate professor of Pediatrics and president of The Children’s Agenda, a children’s advocacy organization. “He was ready to take on the challenge.”

PLC/CARE has since become a national model for training future doctors in how to practice “community pediatrics.” Kaczorowski is the national director for the Pediatrics Community Pediatrics Training Initiative. PLC/CARE announced a name-change on Wednesday (March 6). It is now called The Hoekelman Center.

“He recognized that so much of the emerging morbidities and the emerging problems with kids meant that pediatricians needed to be active in the community,” Kaczorowski said. “He was extraordinary.”

Kaczorowski and his pediatrician-wife, Laura Jean Shipley, M.D., visited their “professional-grandfather” with their two children less than a week before he died. He said Dr. Hoekelman was happy to see him and his wife, but he lit up at the sight of their children.

“Visiting him this past weekend reminded me how much he loved children… He absolutely loved kids.”

Dr. Hoekelman was predeceased in 2006 by his wife of 56 years, Ann Sheeler Hoekelman, and is survived by his four daughters, Gretchen Hoekelman of Canandaigua, NY, Kathryn Wissler of Pittsford, Jane Hoekelman of St. Louis, M.O., and Alison Cushing of Crozet, V.A., and by his eight grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to The Hoekelman Center at the Department of Pediatrics, University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, Box 777, 601 Elmwood Ave., Rochester, NY, 14642 or to Sonnenberg Gardens, 151 Charlotte St., Canandaigua, NY, 14424.

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Heather Hare
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