1970s: From the Heart

Pediatric cardiologist becomes international expert on childhood obesity

Dr. Reginald Washington recently allowed that he “had a lot of fun” while attending Saint Mary’s High School in Colorado Springs. He wouldn’t elaborate. After all, he is an internationally respected pediatric cardiologist and hospital leader. But, Washington wryly conceded, “The principal knew me very well.”

It was an improbable leap from there to Washington’s 2006 achievement as a finalist for U.S. surgeon general under President George W. Bush. The surgeon general is the nation’s No. 1 spokesperson on matters of public health.

He ultimately did not fill the role, yet the process yielded a lesson: “I’ve learned you never try to figure out what’s next,” Washington said. “You never know what’s going to happen in your life and career, but you’ve got to be ready when it does.”

Inherent in his motto is this understanding: Educators, friends, and colleagues become critical advocates when they see the sparks, skills, and talents that people may not even see in themselves. That was the case when Washington attended Colorado State University, despite skepticism from his high school counselor. Years later, it was true when he rose as a candidate for surgeon general; he still doesn’t know who suggested him.

In 1971, Washington graduated from CSU as a first-generation student in zoology. He picked the major having been a kid with four aquariums in his room, fascinated by living things; that fascination evolved into his interest in medicine. Washington said he grew as a student with focus, inspiration, and help from professors and mentors who encouraged and challenged him.

“They saw something in me,” said Washington, who earned a med- ical degree from the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

Reginald Washington examines an infant in a hospital room
Dr. Reginald Washington, 68, is chief medical officer at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center and the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver. He served for eight years on the governing board for the Colorado State University System, including terms as vice president and president, and received the 2004 William E. Morgan Alumni Achievement Award, the highest honor given by the CSU Alumni Association. Photo by Ben Ward / Colorado State University

His distinguished career as a pediatric cardiologist and renowned expert in childhood obesity led him to become chief medical officer at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center and the Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children in Denver. Washington is responsible for the quality of care provided to some 300 adult and pediatric patients hospitalized in the two facilities on any given day. Together, the co-located hospitals admit about 12,000 patients per year.

In his job, Washington keeps an eagle eye on outcomes – assessing 72 quality-of-care metrics daily – and maintains empathy for patients seen by numerous caregivers, including 950 doctors with hospital privileges.

To get there, he spent decades as a clinician, medical researcher, and clinical professor of pediatrics at the CU School of Medicine. Washington was drawn by the rewards of curing children; his lasting influence began when he and colleagues realized there were no set medical parameters for assessing normal cardiac functions in healthy kids. Starting in the latter 1970s, their research helped establish normal values for resting heart rate, heart rate during exercise, blood pres- sure, blood-cholesterol levels, and other important health indicators.

During those studies, Washington and collaborators documented a steady rise in childhood obesity, which continues to grow as a national concern. Their observations snowballed into discoveries about the medical markers of childhood obesity, key lifestyle factors that contribute, and the alarming ramifications found in irreversible adult diseases, he said.

Washington has shared findings in dozens of research papers and at countless medical conferences. He has held top national leadership posts, including terms on the board of the American Heart Association and the Experts Committee on Obesity for the American Academy of Pediatrics. He also has earned top national awards, including recognition as 1995 American Heart Association Physician of the Year. These successes formed the basis for his candidacy as U.S. surgeon general and his recent work as a chief medical officer.

“I’m using all these life experiences every day,” Washington said. “The evolution was natural, but it wasn’t planned.”