Death of World’s Oldest Doctor: Loving Your Work

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

I was in awe when a few days ago I read in the US press about the death of Dr Leila Denmark, aged 114. She was the world’s oldest practising doctor when she retired at age 103, and the picture shown in the American paper was taken when she was 100, in 1998.

She was the first resident physician at Henrietta Egleston Hospital for Children in Atlanta when it opened in 1928. Subsequently she started her paediatrics practice in her home in Atlanta in 1931 and continued until her retirement in 2001: a total of over 70 years in active practice, phew!

Among several honours she received during her career was included the ‘Fisher Award in 1935 for outstanding research in diagnosis, treatment, and immunisation of whooping cough.’ She also did volunteer work at a Baby Clinic near the state capitol in Atlanta, according to her daughter Mary Hutcherson, seeing ‘mill workers and other poor people who had no other way to get medical care and would bring their sick children to the clinic.’

Family members also said that her ‘enduring love of her work was a key to her long life, along with eating right.’

Work hard, love your work and eat right – sounds like a magic formula, and simple too isn’t it! How far you can ‘love your work’ probably varies according to the work one does, and the conditions under which one works along with the attitude of the employer(s). But there is no doubt that the practice of medicine provides one with ample scope to do so, and indeed a granddaughter of Dr Denmark said that she never referred to her practice of medicine as ‘work.’

I have always thought that if you do not love what you are doing, including work, then you are wasting not only your time but your life. Medicine, along with teaching, remains a great profession, and the epithet ‘noble’ can still apply to it if as doctors we would remember the words ascribed to one of our great masters, Armand Trousseau, about the role of the doctor: ‘guerir parfois, soulager souvent, consoler toujours.’

Complementary to, indeed essential to the technical expertise of the doctor there is what I would call a sacerdotale dimension that we are tending to lose, but which is subsumed in Trousseau’s wise truism. Admittedly, with the commercialisation of medicine that drives the expectations of patients and society at large, and that also contributes to the excessively litigious environment that we now live in, this ideal is becoming more and more difficult to fulfill. However, it is definitely in the interest of both patient and doctor to strive to restore the trust that is the foundation of the doctor-patient relationship.

One of my earliest memories as a child is a visit to late Dr Rivalland, in his consultation which was situated behind the Sik Yuen supermarket in Curepipe. He was a rotund figure, with a bald shining head, all pink, and an ample tummy to match his wide smile and welcoming face. I do not remember feeling frightened on entering the surgery and seeing him, quite the contrary.

Many years later, when I was in Upper VI 3, he came for a home visit in the afternoon to our house in Curepipe Road, to see my younger brother who had had a nose bleed. I had stayed back to give him an account of what had happened, and also because as I had decided I wanted to be a doctor, I was excited at the prospect of meeting one in flesh and bone as it were – since I hardly got such opportunities otherwise. After the consultation was over, and I’d held his doctor’s bag and walked him to his car, I dared to ask him a question after telling him about my career interest, ‘where do you think is a good place to pursue my studies?’

His reply, as he stood with one foot inside the car and his elbow resting on the half open car door, is etched in my memory. ‘It does not matter where you do your first degree,’ he said, ‘but for your specialisation I would advise France or England.’

Today there are more options of where to study, but as far as I am concerned, I proceeded to England for my specialisation – largely influenced by that advice but also by a combination of circumstances which included amongst others the influence of the Royal College Curepipe, and the bias inculcated during my undergraduate years in India.

What an outstanding example and role model, Dr Leila Denmark. May her soul rest in peace.

* Published in print edition on 6 April 2012

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