Doctor attacks bugs that attack kids
'Dr. Zhivago' inspired expert in pediatric infectious diseases
By Peggy Peck
Editor's note: CNN.com has a business partnership with MedPageToday.com, which provides custom health content. A medical profile from MedPage Today appears each Tuesday.
When he's not researching infectious diseases, Dr. Blaise Congeni, left, shoots hoops with his brother Joe.
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AKRON, Ohio (MedPage Today) -- Dr. Blaise L. Congeni has always been in a hurry.
He started medical school before he finished college and then compressed four years of medical education into three years of concentrated study. He did all this so that he could pursue a goal that came to him when he was a 10th-grader watching a movie.
The film was "Dr. Zhivago."
"I saw the movie and I thought the doctor was dashing and doing important things. That appealed to me and I decided that was what I would do."
But unlike the tortured hero of Dr. Zhivago, who is carried by events and emotions through the Russian revolution, once Congeni, 56, had his eye on a goal; he had a single-minded purpose. Congeni today is a nationally recognized expert in pediatric infectious diseases, and he heads the department of pediatric infectious diseases at Akron (Ohio) Children's Hospital.
On a busy day spent checking on his young patients and training doctors who trail behind him, Congeni suddenly becomes animated when asked about his favorite subject -- vaccines.
"When I came here my career was almost completely consumed with bacterial meningitis. Now, because of three new vaccines that disease has been greatly diminished. When I think back to the suffering caused by that disease, it gives me a great deal of satisfaction to know that we are now preventing that suffering."
Or consider rotavirus -- the viral infection that is the most common cause of severe diarrhea in children.
"We've just had a rotavirus vaccine approved," he said. "Worldwide 70 children die of rotavirus every hour. With this new vaccine we can prevent the deaths of 70 children every hour. Vaccine can do this."
Congeni was born in Cleveland, the second of four children in a family that would stretch to six when his parents adopted two orphaned cousins. But he spent most of his growing up years in Warrensville Heights, a blue-collar suburb of a blue-collar city.
Making the grade
His father was a carpenter and his mother a homemaker.
"In my parents' generation no one went to college, but all of their children not only went to college they also completed advanced degrees."
No small achievement when one considers that "half of my high school class didn't go on to college."
Nonetheless, Congeni excelled in both the classroom and on the basketball court, so much so that he attracted the attention of some Ivy League schools.
"I received some letters of inquiry from the Ivy schools and I was encouraged to apply," he said. "I was turned down by every one of them, which was the best thing that ever happened to me."
He said that attending an Ivy League school would have been a tremendous financial burden on his family. Instead, he went to Miami of Ohio."
Miami of Ohio is now well-known as a highly selective school, but "back then they had an open admission policy."
Running on the fast track
Nonetheless, the college recognized ability, and Congeni was encouraged to apply to medical school while in his junior year.
And he fast-tracked medical school at Ohio State as well, finishing in three years instead of four. It was during his second year at medical school that he decided to concentrate in a medical specialty rather than surgical.
"Then my first day on the pediatric wards, I knew I wanted to be a doctor to kids." Helping that decision was the fact that at the time "pediatrics was probably the strongest and most dynamic division at Ohio State."
After graduating from medical school at 23, he headed to the University of Michigan for a residency. But before he said goodbye to Columbus, he said "I do" to his wife Ann, who had trained to be a high school teacher.
During residency training he became intrigued by the study of pediatric infectious diseases, specifically meningitis, a serious infection that spreads quickly and can lead to permanent disability or death. He applied to a fellowship program at Metropolitan General Hospital in Cleveland, now known as Metro General. It is one of the teaching hospitals of Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and is one of a handful of hospitals that offer advanced training in pediatric infectious diseases.
Time to work
A job offer came from Akron Children's Hospital, which is affiliated with Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine, or NEOUCOM, a medical school located in Rootstown, Ohio. There he remains, unlike the peripatetic Dr. Zhivago.
Asked about parental concerns that vaccines may cause side effects, including unproven concerns that some vaccines may be linked to autism, Congeni said he is sympathetic to parental concerns.
"I have cared for children with autism, and I am eager to find a cause, but vaccines are not the cause," he said. "As vaccines make us safe, people forget about these diseases -- measles, rubella, pertussis, polio, meningitis -- but I've seen all these diseases. They are terrible. When we hear about an outbreak of one of these 'forgotten' diseases the result is usually panic and people forget concerns."
So while Congeni is an advocate of vaccine safety, he is primarily a champion of universal immunization.
In his spare time he is likely to be found shooting hoops with family, including his brother Joe, a physician who specializes in sports medicine and who also practices at Akron Children's Hospital, and his three children, Christopher, 27, John, 24 -- a medical student at NEOUCOM -- and Jessica, 21.
Looking back at the career choice he made in a darkened movie theater, Congeni has no regrets.
"I am one of the most blessed persons on Earth," he said. "I love what I'm doing, and every day is a new challenge."
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