Perched on the edge of her seat, Dr. Joan Flender answers questions with poise, honesty and passion. Her gaze steady, she has a reputation for making others feel heard, valued.
In 1981, Dr. Flender, moved to Dansville, becoming, quite intentionally, its first ever pediatrician. “My husband worked in Rochester,” said Dr. Flender. “We drew an hour circle around Rochester and looked for anywhere there was a hospital.” Both Brockport and Canandaigua had pediatricians at the time, but Dansville did not. Dr. Flender decided she would be the first. “Plus, it’s gorgeous here,” she quipped.
Raised in New York City and Long Island, Dr. Flender always enjoyed science and working with people. “I was a psychology major,” explained Dr. Flender. “I took the MCATS because all of my friends were taking them.” Doing very well, Dr. Flender went on to Cornell Medical College then U of R for her residency.
It was there she felt drawn to pediatrics and child development. “I loved seeing a child at six months, then again at six years, watching the child grow,” she said.
“My goal in life was to make a difference,” explained Dr. Flender. “I realized the best way to do that would be to move to a small town where they had never had a pediatrician and to try to improve health care for kids.”
“I joined Tricounty Family Medicine,” Dr. Flender recalled. “It was wonderful.” Her first patients were referrals from the school.
“The first few children we saw were quite sick,” said Dr. Flender. “Perhaps because they were not seen regularly or because they hadn’t had a pediatrician here before.” Pediatricians spend three years focusing solely on children and teens.
“We got the checkups going,” said Dr. Flender. “We established connections with the school, daycare…anything that has to do with kids.”
In 1988, Dr. Flender started Stony Brook Pediatrics and was joined by Dr. Diane Rapp and Dr. Slowinski. It remained so for many years. There are now 6 providers at offices in both Dansville and Geneseo.
“I love what I do,” Dr. Flender reflected. “Would I do it again? Yes. I love the cross generational interaction here. In the city, people hang out with others their age. Here, it is more family-oriented and multigenerational.”
Dr. Flender enjoys this within her own family. Married almost forty years, she raised her three sons in Dansville, and one of them, along with his wife, is currently raising his own family in the very home in which he was raised.
Dr. Flender also takes a more personal approach to health care. “I do think we will still do house visits,” she said. “Also, if I have bad news, I am not going to give that to you over the phone. I am going to come to your home. Sadly, we have had patients pass away, and some of those experiences have bonded me with families the most because we do it together if need be.”
Little wonder Dr. Flender is beloved by many Dansville families. “My mother and I believe in ‘Be nice,’” she explained. “In my practice, we try to be helpful, pleasant and not get in people’s way when they are raising their kids.”
“We have expanded hours and leave our phones on. When can working people make a phone call?” she asked. “On their lunch break! We accommodate them. We don’t let those things that bother us happen to our patients.
Dr. Flender also takes an active role in the community, serving on the Board of Health and on the board at Noyes. “I’ll go to school meetings or observe a kid in school, and we don’t charge for that,” she said. “It’s just part of what we do. We are involved with the school and have been the physicians, free-of-charge, for Rotary Camp since 1981.”
“We have our own foundation, as well,” added Dr. Flender. “Some people know about it and contribute to it. When a child becomes very ill, sometimes, a parent has to stay home to care for that child for several weeks or months. We quietly pay a couple of months of their mortgage, help out with gas money or other needs. We just tell them to pay it forward.”
“It is a career for me, not just a 9-5,” said Dr. Flender. “I didn’t want to have a strict divide between work and home. I wanted it to merge. I managed to make that work, and I am very happy.” Dr. Flender reads two science magazines and several medical journals every week, too. “It is a passion of mine, and I love it,” she said. “One of my great fears is not knowing everything!”
Although Dr. Flender now heads south each winter, she does not yet see retirement on her horizon. “Medicine and science excite me,” she said. “There have been amazing changes. In 1981, it was basically an infectious disease practice. We were seeing all sorts of things that now, with vaccines, you don’t see anymore.”
“Over time, we have become more focused on behavioral concerns,” she said. “We now have the luxury to focus on that because we are not worried about children dying all the time, which is truly lovely. Kids live longer and healthier than they ever have.”
When asked what she would say to young people interested in entering the medical field, Dr. Flender didn’t hesitate. “Do it,” she answered. “It is such a privilege to take care of patients and for families to let you participate in their lives. It is just a lovely thing to do to help people feel better and be with them through both good and difficult times.”
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