At 99 years old, Christian Chenay is France’s oldest practicing physician, and he’s even been called an “inspiration” by French president Emmanuel Macron. But he almost never got a chance to live such a long and fruitful life. Because his own father didn’t want children, he attempted to abort Chenay. Thankfully, this failed, and today, the small Paris suburb of Chevilly-Larue, with its population of 19,000 and just three physicians, is glad he survived.
The National Catholic Register notes that Chenay was drafted into the German Compulsory Work Service during WWII after France became an occupied nation. On the way to his destination of Dresden, he escaped by jumping out of a moving train. The others who continued on to Dresden were killed when the Allies bombed the city in 1945 — and again, Chenay survived a deadly situation.
Though not yet a licensed physician, Chenay gained experience working with typhus patients during WWII. His official medical practice was psychiatry in 1951, and he later moved on to specialize in radiology. His current practice of general medicine began at age 92. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Chenay continued to see his patients at first, unwilling to leave them without care, and he made headlines internationally for putting himself at great risk to serve them. He has cared for the very young and the very old. He told the NC Register, “There are many local families that I have known for so many years and that still count on me.”
For 69 years, he has also served as the physician for retired missionary priests and brothers of the Congregation of the Holy Spirit at a local retirement home. Chenay commented, “I’ve always taken good care of this community that I’ve always liked, and they know they can count on me anytime… I’ve known them young, in great shape, leaving as missionaries for Africa, South America, to the four corners of the world; and now we are reunited again, as old men.” Chenay’s best friend at the retirement home is Father Alphonse Gilbert, a retired missionary who is also 99.
Fr. Gabriel Myotte-Duquet, religious superior for the Congregation of the Holy Spirit, said of Chenay, “His weekly visits give a sense of security to our elderly missionaries, and this is crucial for their longevity.” Perhaps most importantly, “He knows the limits of medicine, and he understands that we want to die at home and not at the hospital, which is a blessing for us.”
Eventually, though, he moved to virtual and telehealth visits after he began to display coronavirus symptoms himself. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, he said “I had to give up, I had no protection. I would not have been doing a service if I had stayed open, I would have been a virus hotspot, a centre of infection, it’s impossible.”
For his part, Chenay recognizes that societal attitudes of respect and care for senior citizens are not what they once were. “Life is not worth much anymore. It’s value has weakened a lot, especially over the last years. In the past, we used to respect the elderly and keep them at home.”
When an almost-centarian like Chenay who has survived so much shares observations like these, we would do well to heed the good doctor’s words and care for all human beings, from the youngest to the oldest.
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