My Oldest Patient

Shortly after I completed my residency training in family medicine in 2004, I worked briefly for a company which offered mobile physician home visits. Though I soon realized that driving to patients wasn’t my thing, I definitely met some very interesting people during that time.

My favorite and most memorable patient from my mobile medicine days was an elderly woman, aged 105. During my hospital days, I had seen and treated a number of centenarians, but this woman was the oldest. I was called upon to visit this woman’s home (I’ll call her Mary) to perform a blood pressure check and manage her hypertension. She lived in a charming duplex which was erected circa 1905. I knocked on the door and when the door opened, a friendly middle-aged man greeted me and introduced me as Mary’s caregiver (let’s name him Tim).

The interior of the duplex was a time capsule. I honestly felt like I had stepped into the 1920’s, because everything in the place was from that era: lamps, paintings, coffee cups, pens, furniture, curtains, pillows, etc. As my eyes scanned the room, I saw Mary sitting in a large chair with a walker in front of her. Mary’s face certainly was old and her body was frail, but she possessed fire in her eyes and a sassy attitude to match. I thought of how this woman, born in 1899, was witness to three different centuries, as a result of the year she was born as well as the longevity which extended her time on planet Earth far beyond that of the average person.

Mary smiled at me and motioned for me to come over.
MARY: “Well you’re a pretty young lady…what’s your name?”
ME: “Hello Mary, I’m Dr. Naito.”
MARY: “DOCTOR??? DOCTOR??? Tim, what have you tricked me into? Why do we have a doctor here?” Mary’s brow was furrowed.
TIM: “Well Mary, since you refused to take your blood pressure medicine, and since your blood pressure reading was very high today, I had to call the mobile doctor service to come see you. Now be nice to the doctor, will you please?”

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At this point I asked Mary if I could take her blood pressure again, and she consented. I took her blood pressure reading: 175/95. I began to ask Mary questions: was she in pain anywhere, did she have a headache, was she dizzy, was she nauseous, was her heart racing, was her vision blurry? I took her pulse: 78 and steady. Mary had no complaints. I then conducted a physical exam on her, which was completely normal. I then asked Mary if she would please take her blood pressure medication immediately, to which she also consented. Once Mary took the medication, I informed her that we would wait about 30 minutes to assess her response to it. She responded by saying, “Well I like you, young doctor! We’re going to have a nice chat!”

The next 30 minutes were incredibly fascinating and funny as Mary settled into a stream of vignettes about her life, focusing mostly on her days as a true flapper, wild and carefree, wearing short dresses, “necking” with handsome young men, hanging out in jazz clubs, and being a general troublemaker. One of those young men managed to steal her heart, and they married in 1922. She spoke about how she became an actress quite by accident when her husband, who was a Hollywood film producer, began to cast her in his films. Mary and her husband were more interested in traveling the world and investing their money than buying an expensive home, so they lived in their modest duplex from 1922 until his death almost 60 years later, and Mary refused to move into an assisted living facility when she became an invalid. It was the same duplex I was visiting that day.

After thirty minutes of hearing the most engaging stories about Mary’s life, I didn’t want to interrupt her. But I was working, after all, so I told her I needed to re-take her blood pressure. This time it was 138/7 and Mary was still completely asymptomatic. I told Mary that it was time for me to go and began gathering my supplies.
MARY: “Oh no you don’t! You’re going to drink a martini with me. It’s my nightly ritual. Been doing it since I was 20 years old.”
ME: “Every night since 20?”
MARY: “Yes indeed. It’s kept me sane all these years, and I enjoy it.”
ME: “But I need to drive over the hill, and it’s rush hour.”
MARY: “Oh please! Now stop complaining and just sit. Tim, make my usual times two.”

After several minutes Tim emerged from the kitchen with two double gin martinis. I don’t like gin, but I wasn’t about to complain or refuse to drink the martini. Mary and I (actually, she talked and I listened) continued to talk for another 30 minutes while sipping on our cocktails. The martini was STRONG but well made, so I continued sipping. Mary polished off her entire martini like the martini drinking expert she was, and motioned to me when she took her last sip. “Well, dear? You’ve got some left in there.” I had to finish the last couple of sips of my martini while Mary watched me, making sure I did so. Once I did, she smiled warmly. “That’s my girl!”, she beamed.

I gathered my belongings and said goodbye to her, and when she motioned for a hug, I walked over to her and wrapped my arms around her. She hugged me and patted my back with her hand.

I never saw her after that.

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