Dr Christian Chenay’s 99th birthday is nearing, but he continues to care for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He is France’s oldest doctor and after 70 years of service, he says he still wants to help people in the “forgotten” suburbs of Paris.
Before the epidemic, the doctor’s waiting room on a quiet street in a low-income Paris suburb would be so full that patients spilled out to the pavement.
Some from distant areas would travel there as early as 4am to be sure of a place in line.
Chenay’s decision to keep working is partly due to France’s shortage of local family doctors.
Although the country has a reputation for one of the world’s best healthcare systems, the lack of general practitioners has reached a crisis point.
The problem is most acute in rural areas where millions struggle to access care, but also in some of the low-income Paris banlieues.
“I’m almost 99 years old, I should reduce my activity for many reasons,” Dr Chenay said.
“I work slower than before, I have to take care.”
Many of his patients say they struggle to get appointments in the Paris suburb of Chevilly-Larue which has three doctors for a population of 19,000.
“We have a disease that is very contagious, that hasn’t affected a lot of people yet. We feel powerless. We don’t have a treatment,” says Dr Chenay.
“We don’t have the possibility of isolating people, we don’t have the means of knowing who’s sick and who’s not. I was in contact with quite a few sick people who were probably positive, it would be surprising if I wasn’t positive too, especially as I had the symptoms for a while.”
However, Dr Chenay had to end face-to-face appointments and go into quarantine after he began showing symptoms of COVID-19.
“I had to give up, I had no protection,” he said. “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.”
The veteran physician treated typhus patients during the second world war. Chenay began work as a general practitioner in this area of the Val-de-Marne almost 70 years ago. He has outstayed his own son, who also worked as a doctor but retired at 67.
Now, after his self-quarantine is over, he is back at work holding virtual consultations over the phone and internet.
“I’ve seen the typhus epidemic coming back from the war, there were very few that caught it amongst the caregivers, we had masks, we were really shielded, we were really covered, we actually had gas masks,” Chenay says.
“It was difficult to live through, but we didn’t catch the illness, and we isolated the sick, thank God we had a treatment.”
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