Dr. Leila Denmark is about to turn 114 years old, and will be the 4th oldest person in the world. I think I would have to also say that she may be at least the 4th smartest, kindest, and dedicated physician in the world as well. For those of us who took our children to her, (and there are 4 generations of us), there is no one like her. The following is my own recollection of her, and why I liked this remarkable woman and gifted physician so very much. It is my tribute to her on her 114th birthday. It is strange how writing about these events seems to make them come alive so many years later; I can recall them as if they had occurred just yesterday.
I first met Dr. Denmark in 1985 when we took our firstborn to see her; she was 87 years old at the time. I could have taken our daugther to several excellent physicians in the Atlanta area, but I had heard so many good things about Dr. Denmark from my friends that I felt confident that she was the best choice. I recall sharing about the appointment with Joe when he arrived home that night. “We had a good visit with Dr. Denmark today; I sure hope she will live long enough to get through our daughter’s first year of life.” Some 25 years later, my daughter wanted to celebrate her birthday by visiting with Dr. Denmark. As we walked up the steps of her daughter Mary’s home, I thought back to that day, and laughed to myself. My mind drifted to the small white house with its adjoining office in Dunwoody, Ga.
After signing ourselves in, we would wait for Dr. Denmark herself to come out to the reception room and ask “Who’s my next little angel?” Each time we would visit, Dr. Denmark would dispense just the right amount of wise advice, all the while noting that common sense is a mother’s ready tool. “If only people would treat their children as well as we treat animals,” she would contend, “they would be so much better off. You would never see a mama cat or dog or cow feed their young all day long, or give them things to eat that are not good for them ” My daughter would be sitting there in her diaper on the examining table and I can still recall her beautiful wisps of strawberry blonde hair, her sweet face, and her flawless skin. She was usually happy to sit there listening for Dr. Denmark’s little bird whispers in her ear, (but sadly the one picture I have of her with Dr. Denmark is one with tears) and to the friendly dialogue between mother and physician in this tiny but wonderful space. I would find myself in other meaningful encounters later in life, in obscure places in China or Africa, but these moments with Dr. Denmark will always be some of my favorites.
By the time our twins came along, Dr. Denmark had moved to her new home and office out in Cumming. The old blue-green restaurant style curved booth seating was moved to the new office, and the moms would sit and wait without an appointment, sometimes for twenty minutes and sometimes for several hours. The twins both had a reflux problem that was not serious, but still upsetting since it involved projectile upchucking of their formula, soaking our clothes and furniture. Dr. Denmark took it all in stride and asked me to give the boys a bottle so she could observe. When they threw up, I hurried to wipe up the mess on her floor, with my husband managing the babies. I will never forget how quick Dr. Denmark was to say to me as she took my arm and got down on her knees to clean the floor. “You get up Miss May; you are a mother and are way too important to be down here on the floor… mothers have the most influential job in the world…if only they realized it.” I was so stunned I was speechless as I looked at Joe for some confirmation that he too had heard this, and that I was not dreaming.
Later the twins got over their reflux phase and were thriving on Dr. Denmark’s regimen of regular sleep, nutritious food, sunshine and encouragement. We were in her office for a well visit, when out of the blue in her unassuming way she began to tell me that some fellow wanted to come out and do an interview for television and that she thought these twins would be good patients for her to examine during the interview. I was a bit nervous about being on television but I knew I would be in the background, and figured not too many people would see us on local TV, so I agreed. When I arrived at her office with the twins and my daughter in her dress and big hair bow, the fellow introduced himself to me as Bob Dotson from NBC. I about had heart failure at the thought of being on a national network with no preparation or time to back out. But we did the interview and waited for it to finally air around Thanksgiving of that year (1989). Of course this was before the Internet, YouTube, or cell phone videos, but we did manage to tape the segment on a VHS tape. I suppose I should find that old tape and get it transferred to a DVD for my kids and grandkids to watch one day. And I will try not to get my feelings hurt when my kids ask “Is that really you Mom?!!!” or worse yet, “Mom who is that lady holding us?” (Dr. Denmark they will recognize instantly.)
I think of Dr. Denmark so often, and even though she is so smart and so famous, she is probably the least smug about her stature than any famous person I can think of. And that got my attention. She embodied confidence in her methods, and in my ability to think things through, and make wise choices for my children’s welfare. But with Dr. Denmark, there was not the slightest hint of know-it-all-ness or self-righteous satisfaction. She was as humble as she was bright, and truly dedicated herself to using her skills and wisdom to make this world a better place.
I hope Dr. Denmark lives to turn 114 this February 1, and I hope her beloved daughter Mary, her grandsons and their families get to enjoy a private celebration without adoring fans and curious onlookers. But I don’t need to hope that she uses her gifts to bring honor to God, and bring better health to thousands of children and parents. She has already done that.
Happy Birthday and God Bless You Dr. Denmark! It has truly been a privilege to know you. And when I get down on my knees to clean up my grandchildren’s mess, if I have a smile on my face, it’s because I will be thinking of you.