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September 24, 2014

Pediatric cardiologist Chloe Alexson remembered for patient rapport

Chloe Alexson
Chloe Alexson

Late pediatric cardiologist Chloe Alexson left a legacy of exceptional patient care when she died Aug. 17 at the age of 85.

But her extraordinary rapport with patients wasn’t the only trait she honed over her 45 years with the Medical Center.

Marilyn Brown, a pediatric gastroenterologist who met Alexson in 1960, recalls her uncanny photographic memory.

“She could remember every single patient she had, and the cardiac anomaly that they’d come in with,” says Brown. “But it wasn’t work to her. She was always upbeat.”

Alexson grew up in northern New Jersey, and went on to Cornell University for her undergraduate education, and graduated from the School of Medicine and Dentistry in 1954 She stayed in Rochester, joining a pediatric cardiology team at Strong Memorial Hospital—including her, James Manning and J. Peter Harris— that would make up the core of the division for 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.

Alexson also threw herself 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.

She quickly 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,” says David Siegel, chief of the Division of Pediatric Rheumatology at 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,” says Elise van der Jagt, 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,” says 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’s 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 alumni efforts.

In a recent essay posted to the School of Medicine and Dentistry’s alumni website, she wrote that she was often asked what her wish is for current medical school 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,” she wrote. “Every morning I thank God that I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up—and that I was right."

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