If one memory can shape a person’s life, it’s the recollection that Dr. Blaise Congeni, director of pediatric infectious disease and pediatric infectious disease specialist, has of his grandfather.
“My childhood memory of my grandfather is that he signed his paychecks with an ‘x,’ Dr. Congeni said. “He was illiterate. Both my parents are second-generation Americans, who went on to get high school degrees. Education was important to them and they encouraged their children to attend college and get advanced degrees. When my older brother and I talked about this recently, he said he wanted to kiss the man who told our grandpa to come to America. Our family has achieved so much in 3 or 4 generations.”
The resolve Dr. Congeni saw in his grandparents and parents motivated him to become a doctor and a professor. It’s also what drew him to pediatrics.
“What has always touched my heart is the strength of the children I care for, and how their parents hang in there and fight so hard for them,” he said. “Looking back, their courage and determination are the reasons I went into pediatrics.”
After 43 years at Akron Children’s, Dr. Congeni retires on December 31. He plans to enjoy time with his wife and family, take walks and teach adult Sunday school at his church. Next spring, he’ll try out his green thumb, planting flowers in his newly built flower bed.
What brought you to Children’s?
I was completing my pediatric infectious diseases fellowship at MetroHealth and job interviewing. I had met Dr. Norman Glazer, head of Children’s radiology department, at MetroHealth. He invited me to Children’s to meet Dr. Lewis Walker, pediatric allergist, and give a talk on my medical research. Later that day, they hired me.
Have you always worked in the same department and role?
When I started, few hospitals employed physicians, but Children’s hired me to start the pediatric infectious disease department. As the only doctor in that role, I saw patients and conducted research on new vaccines and antibiotics. It was amazing to watch these drugs unfold and see how they benefitted the lives of our patients and their families. For example, when ceftriaxone was introduced to combat bacterial meningitis, it made treating it at home easier for parents. It’s an injectable drug that is given once a day, versus the traditional therapy at that time which required 3 doses daily.
Teaching has always been integral to my role here, whether it’s as a professor of pediatrics and medical microbiology at Northeast Ohio Medical University or in consultation with Children’s physicians at our various locations. Through these interactions, we’ve been able to grow the pediatric infectious disease department to include 5 attending physicians, a pharmacist, nurses and office staff.
What have your biggest contributions been while here?
They’ve included caring for our patients, teaching and being available whenever I’m needed, which helped me to develop relationships throughout the 27 counties we serve. In the early days, my family would say being available meant that I knew where every pay phone in Akron was whenever I was paged!
How has Akron Children’s changed since you started here?
Infectious diseases are more complex and we’re seeing sicker kids, such as transplant recipients and immunocompromised patients who are predisposed to serious infections.
What gave you the most satisfaction at work?
Professionally, it’s been taking care of patients, some of whom are critically ill. I always save the cards they’ve sent. Personally, it’s the fact that 2 family members also work at Children’s: my daughter, Jessica Fister, patient navigator in developmental pediatrics, and my brother, Dr. Joe Congeni, director of sports medicine and a sports medicine physician.
What’s your most memorable moment at Akron Children’s?
The first time we cared for an HIV patient and her baby, who was also infected, there was trepidation. We didn’t know much about HIV and AIDS yet. I arranged to have the mother and baby, both who were severely ill, hospitalized in the same room. The baby died in her mother’s presence on Easter morning. That’s a special day, especially for me as a Christian.
What’s your idea of a perfect day?
A sunny day, walking when the flowers are blooming, seeing my grandchildren and being with Ann, my wife of 47 years.
Do you have any advice for people just starting at Children’s?
Surround yourself with great people. The people I work with are phenomenal.
What couldn’t you live without?
I couldn’t live without my faith, which gives my life meaning.
What’s the last book your read?
“The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism” by Timothy J Keller