Sanford bids farewell to longtime pediatrician-neonatologist

Dr. Rafael Ocejo practiced 43 years in medicine, 25 of those in Bismarck

Smiling Sanford Health doctor in profile on black background.

After 25 years in Bismarck, North Dakota, and more than 40 years practicing medicine, Dr. Rafael Ocejo is calling it a career. The pediatrician and neonatologist at Sanford Health Bismarck has announced his retirement after a lifetime spent helping others.

“I’m 75 years old. You’re not talking to a spring chicken here,” said Dr. Ocejo with a smile. “You can’t just continue working until you’re in a wheelchair and blind, you know? Do I want to quit? No. I would love to continue doing it. But I am also thinking about myself. I need to dedicate a little bit of time to myself, maybe traveling, and going and visiting my grandchildren more often in Canada.”

Leaving behind a legacy

Dr. Ocejo has seen a lot of change during his time in Bismarck, including the arrival of Sanford Health. When asked about the impact he has personally had over the years, he is quick to point out the success and high quality of care of the department he was so instrumental in building. He is proud of the growth of the NICU and neonatal units, and of the relationships he built with nurses as well.

As a doctor though, his main job has always been treating patients. So it’s no surprise that his thoughts very quickly went to some of the less obvious aspects of care that he also had a hand in improving.

“I was on the third floor, and there was a time when moms had to register their children on the first floor. It might be a mom coming with a two-week-old baby and a little 18-month toddler that was just running around. I said to the CEO, ‘We need to change this. They need to come to the third floor and register there,’” said Dr. Ocejo.

He also fought for valet parking years ago.

“In the summer, maybe it’s not as much of a deal, but it’s still difficult to park,” he said. “In the winter though, it doesn’t make sense that you would ask a mother with a baby and a toddler to walk a block.”

Of course, his lasting legacy for most patients will be the care he provided to their children. That’s something he both cherishes, and feels slightly melancholy about.

“(Retirement) is a painful decision. I think that many of them are going to be pretty upset that I am no longer going to practice pediatrics,” Dr. Ocejo said. “But I have had a big fulfillment for my career because I’ve been seeing children with very complex diseases from the time they were born until they get to be 16 years old.”

Happy memories

Despite treating countless patients over the years, some children still stick out in his memory.

“There was a girl that was on a farm and she was kicked in the head by a horse. She was gravely ill — in the intensive care unit — and at the time I was the only intensivist. I didn’t know if she was going to survive because of the injuries she had in her brain,” Dr. Ocejo said. “She slowly came to and eventually recovered completely, and she was so thankful of me and the care I provided that she called her dog ‘Ocejo.’ I have pictures of her and Ocejo. That was a nice case.”

Dr. Ocejo says he will miss being with his patients, but he never forgets who does most of the caring for the children he treats.

“I’m very humbled when I see what mothers of children with disabilities do. It’s day in and day out. They have to do so many things, and as the kids grow and get older, it can be harder and harder to care for them. So I admire those parents for the treatment they give to their kids,” said Dr. Ocejo.

Saying goodbye

Now though, it is time to say goodbye, with a touch of his signature humor, as well as some sincere sadness.

“I’ve been practicing for so long now I have a number of mothers that I looked after as babies, and they’re bringing their babies! It just shows you that basically I am a dinosaur,” said Dr. Ocejo, laughing.

“But my patients … with tears in my eyes, I feel so sad to have to tell them that I will no longer be working in pediatrics. I truly admire them for what they do every day for their kids. And I’m going to miss them because of course they put so much trust in me.”

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Posted In Bismarck, Company News, Sanford Stories