The singular and comforting story of Catholic doctor Christian Chenay, France’s oldest practicing physician, has gone ’round the Western world over the past weeks, as recounted through various media accounts. Because the ongoing health crisis has shaken entire populations, making people regain awareness of their finiteness and the frailty of earthly life, models of courage and tenacity are indeed a much-needed source of hope and inspiration in the face of hardship.
It must be said that, at nearly 99 years old, Dr. Chenay is a survivor, in many respects. He was born on June 20, 1921, after surviving an abortion attempt instigated by his father, who didn’t want children. During the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, he was forcibly enrolled in the German “Compulsory Work Service” and sent to Dresden. Once again, he escaped a dreadful fate by managing to jump out of the train that was bringing him to the German city, where all of his comrades died from Allied bombings of Dresden in 1945.
Chenay started his medical career as a psychiatrist in 1951 and rubbed shoulders with many leading thinkers of the time, such as Jacques Lacan. Discouraged by what he considered as medicinal and systemic excesses of psychiatry during the following years, he moved toward radiology and, more recently, in 2014, general medicine. In fact, as his town of Chevilly-Larue (in the southern suburbs of Paris) has only three family doctors for 19,000 inhabitants, such a decision was inspired by a strong sense of duty.
The Strength of a Vocation, Against All Odds
“I was retired, but I resumed my activity four years ago because my city had become a so-called medical desert and I wanted to help,” Chenay told the Register. He explained that the only reason why he initially retired was because he was expropriated from his medical practice by the French government within the framework of the big construction project Métropole du Grand Paris, launched in 2007, which included the suburbs of Paris.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, he continued to work, despite the serious risks for someone of his age and despite his wife’s concern. However, his goodwill and bravery came up against the harshness of the reality in the field. Indeed, in addition to the lack of logistic means to welcome the crowds of patients coming to his office, the growing violence of some patients forced Chenay to suspend his consultations, at least until the end of the health crisis.
“When I got to my office at 8:30 in the morning, there were already 30 people crowded in front of my door, and the situation was getting out of control,” he said, explaining that a vast majority of his patients today are recent immigrants who easily lose patience. “Newcomers paid a lot of money to get to France with the belief they would be given everything, and they become very aggressive when they realize they were deceived.”
Chenay said he had to close his practice after being attacked by a group of people who stole his entire stock of masks and hydroalcoholic sanitizing gel. “They also got mad because they didn’t like the color of my masks, and they spit on me.”
This most recent experience is far from being the first time, however, that Dr. Chenay confronted violence in his practice. He already experienced the worst in 1997, when his first wife — who also was his assistant — was killed by 17 stab wounds after an altercation with a patient because of adminitrative issues. The killer was sentenced to six months in jail only.
He also mentioned that his office has been broken into several times since then and that he was robbed by an armed man a few years ago.
“The situation deteriorated a lot in the past years, but it is the force of habit that keeps me going, even because there are many local families that I have known for so many years and that still count on me,” he said, adding that at the end of the pandemic, he will probably follow his historical patients remotely through telemedicine and restrict personal visits to the local retirement home run by the Congregation of the Holy Spirit. Otherwise known as the Spiritans, Chenay has served as the congregation’s personal physician since 1951.
Fidelity to Local Missionaries
“I’ve always taken good care of this community that I’ve always liked, and they know they can count on me anytime,” Chenay said, adding that “it is the least they deserve,” after giving their whole life to the Church, often at great cost. “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 mentioned in particular his friendship with the former director of studies of the Spiritan home of Chevilly-Larue, Spiritan Father Alphonse Gilbert, who is the exact same age and whose missionary life has been as eventful as that of Chenay’s.
“They met when Father Gilbert was a young student, so there is a special complicity between the two men, who always talk about each other with great respect,” Spiritan Father Gabriel Myotte-Duquet, the superior of the community, told the Register. “Dr. Chenay built a strong relationship with the whole community over the years and has a special relation of trust with our religious nurses.”
After explaining that the community currently has 52 members — 33 are over 80 years old and 17 are over the age of 90 — Father Myotte-Duquet highlighted the importance of the doctor’s stable presence. “His weekly visits give a sense of security to our elderly missionaries, and it is crucial for their longevity.”
Father Myotte-Duquet said that Chenay’s Catholic faith helps the doctor understand the way the congregation lives and it makes him even more respectful of human life. “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,” the priest said.
Rehabilitating Old Age
“Your example is an inspiration,” President Emmanuel Macron told Chenay while receiving him at the Elysée Palace on May 1, after several media outlets featured his story. “Hearing about you makes people feel so optimistic,” he said.
In fact, Chenay understood a long time ago that his singular position and testimony of life gave him the power to change mentalities with regard to the elderly, and he is determined to make the most of it. As a privileged witness to the evolution of Western societies over the past century, he has seen the treatment given to senior citizens significantly deteriorate. “Life is not worth much anymore. Its value has weakened a lot, especially over the past years,” Chenay said, denouncing the individualistic and utilitarian shift taken by so many societies, which reached new heights during the pandemic. “In the past, we used to respect the elderly and to keep them at home, while now we send them to the hospital; and when we need to make room, we have come to find solutions to get rid of them quicker.”
Yet Chenay is living proof that every stage of life is precious and meaningful. Through his book Et si la vieillesse n’était pas un naufrage? Seniors, réveillez-vous! (“What if Old Age Was Not a Shipwreck? Senior Citizens, Wake Up!”) and his forthcoming Survival Manual for Retired French People, he hopes he can infuse in elderly people a sense of confidence in life and in the future, in order to help them live the last stage of their earthly pilgrimage serenely.
Despite pushing toward the century mark and by anyone’s account a well-earned retirement, Chenay is determined to continue, one way or another, his mission of serving his fellow citizens. “My old age doesn’t prevent me from working, and I would do something anyway, so I keep going, hoping for better days to come for all of us,” Chenay said, adding, “I am in a better shape at 99 years old than at 75. … The cycle of life has its mysteries!”
Solène Tadié is the Register’s Europe correspondent.