She turned 78 years old the year I was born, so by the time I was actually able to form memories of her, she was well into her eighties. Small, rail thin, and smarter than a busload of MIT grads, Dr. Leila Denmark became a fixture of my childhood.
In what is becoming an all-too-common occurance, another piece of my childhood died this weekend: Dr. Denmark passed away on Sunday.
And at 114 years old, she was the fourth oldest person in the world.
You can find other stories online today that will chronicle her life and career, and I highly encourage you to go read them. Dr. Denmark was well ahead of her time as both a woman and a physician, and some of the things she accomplished in her field are astounding.
But I’m not here to write about all that. I’m here to write about how she literally saved my life.
I’ve grown up hearing how sick I was as a child – in fact, as the father of an asthmatic who typically ends up in some doctor’s office at least once a month, I’ve come to hear about it quite frequently. The one constant in almost all of the stories about my medically fragile childhood? Dr. Denmark.
But it wasn’t always so. In fact, the only reason my parents came to hear of Dr. Denmark was that I had gotten sick and was slowing wasting away. I don’t remember all of the details, but I was so sick I apparently confounded several of Atlanta’s best pediatricians. I’m not sure how long I was ill, but I know it was a period of several weeks, during which I lost weight and my parents lost hope. In fact, one of the last doctors my parents saw before Dr. Denmark didn’t give me much chance to live at all.
“You’re going to lose him,” they were told.
At the end of their wits and hope, my dad’s mother offered her advice: “Take him to see Dr. Denmark.”
Desperate, my parents did.
I’m not sure where her office was back in ’77 – I think it was Sandy Springs or – but my parents figured out how to get there and made the long drive from our home in Centerville. They got there before the office was opened, and Dr. Denmark invited them inside. My dad put me on the examining table and Dr. Denmark, in her patented patient manner, set about examining me.
She was thorough. Question after question regarding my symptoms, my history, my parents worries and fears. She checked me over as well as any doctor could before she wrapped her stethascope around her neck and announced, “This child has the measles.”
There had been no blood drawn. No tests performed. An ancient lady with ancient wisdom simply looked over a sick child, asked a few questions, and made her decision: measles.
Big Red German Measles, as to be precise.
Dr. Denmark believed that I was suffering from a reaction to one of my immunizations and had developed a case of measles that simply wasn’t presenting on my skin. She walked out of the exam room, disappeared for a bit, and came back in with a needle. She calmly walked over to me, inserted the needle into my thigh, and pushed the plunger down.
“That should do it. Take him home, give him some broth, and keep an eye on him.”
And with that, she was done.
My parents took me home, not knowing what to think. But when huge red welps appeared all over my body not four hours later, they believed that the tiny little woman was a genius. And when I completely recovered, they believed she was a saint.
That’s how I ended up at Dr. Denmark’s office any time I was sick. They trusted her; trusted her judgment, her wisdom, her uncommon – and completely ahead of its time – dietary advice. They trusted her because she had given them my life, and they knew she would continue to care for it as long as she could.
I know Dr. Denmark has not practiced medicine in a long time, but that doesn’t change the fact that I, as a father, have often longed to be able to take my daughter and son to see her. While I am grateful for my children’s team of doctors, there is something about Dr. Denmark that makes me think of her in almost mystical terms. She will forever be the shaman of pediatric medicine in my mind.
Now, she is gone.
And the world is poorer for the loss.