Celebrating 100 years of a remarkable woman’s life

Recently, I went to an unusual birthday party, for a woman who turned 100 years old on the 12th of this month. The party was held in advance of her real birthday because she wasn’t sure that she would live to be a centenarian. She is still very much alive, fortunately!

Louise Ireland-Frey is amazing. She still writes letters to the editor. (Editor’s note: See Page 3D.) She is totally competent mentally, walks without a cane and has good sight and hearing (with hearing aids). Her voice is not strong, but that wasn’t a problem at her party because we were quiet, hanging on her every word.

I first met Louise when she attended Durango Friends (Quaker) Meeting. Meditation has been an important part of her life, and Quaker silence favors meditation.

Louise was born in Idaho, according to her autobiography, which she started writing in 2010 (when she was 98). I read a copy of the dozens of chapters that she emailed to a friend. When I asked her if she needed to refer to a diary or other sources for some of the myriad facts, she said that she did need to ask her sons about a couple of things, but most of the narrative came from her remarkable memory.

Her family moved to Colorado when she was little and she graduated from high school in Montrose. She won awards both for academic achievement and in music – she played cello, piano and pipe organ. Her memory has always been phenomenal. Her paternal grandfather lost both his hearing and his vision in his old age. As a protection against boredom if this happened to her, she memorized many poems to keep herself entertained in her dotage.

Louise attended college in Boulder, then earned a graduate degree at Mt. Holyoke in Massachusetts. Studying zoology, she was sometimes called upon to treat animals in ways that she considered inhumane. She resolved this problem by being as kind as possible to her subjects.

Her next educational adventure was medical school at Tulane. She was one of just a handful of female students, and chauvinism was rampant. In addition, she faced a cultural difference because she was a “Yankee”. Nevertheless, she fell in love with and married a local man, also a medical student, Charles Frey. Louise started suffering from an undiagnosed illness that sapped her strength. Now, her ailment would be called “chronic fatigue syndrome.”

Louise and Charles did internships at Wichita Hospital, and then Charles left for three years of military service. Louise did what she could to help medically because there were few physicians left at home. Her energy was so limited that she saw patients for an hour then had to rest for an hour on an exam table. A year of this depleted her energy totally, so she closed her practice and went to her parents in Colorado Springs until her husband returned. The couple moved to the little town of Cedaredge, where they started a family.

As a child, Louise had wanted four sons. She got her wish, with healthy, smart, active boys she kept in line with daily exercise and half an hour of practicing piano. She decided to use her limited energy to raise her sons rather than practice medicine. Occasionally, she was called upon to use her clinical skills, such as when the town’s constable asked her to see a neighbor who had been in a car accident. Louise’s examination suggested that the woman had three or four painful, broken ribs. X-rays later proved her correct; there were four.

Years later, her boys dragged her into the digital age. They bought her a computer and stipulated that she spend 30 minutes daily with it. Later came email and her autobiography.

During her long illness, Louise used self-hypnosis to help her do the work that needed to be done. She was able to gain control over a body that often wanted to be inert. I think that this strength of character has helped her maintain her physical strength and clarity of mind.

Louise has published three books. Her magnum opus is The Blossom of Buddha, a three-volume novel based on the life of the Buddha. She started research for this work in 1943 and it was finished in 2008 – a 56-year gestation!

Louise’s autobiography is only half-finished. I look forward to reading the other half, but in the meantime Louise has been a role model for me and many others whose lives she has touched.

Richard Grossman practices gynecology in Durango. Reach him at richard@population-matters.org. © Richard Grossman MD, 2012