Posted on 12 December 2009.
Daisy and Montefiore Hospital cardiac rehabilitation staff members show off her carefully recorded exercise plan. Photo by Leslie Minora
It is usually a cause for concern when a 99-year-old woman arrives at the hospital, but this was not the case on Nov. 23 in the cardiac rehabilitation center of Montefiore Hospital in the southeast Bronx.
The hospital’s doctors and staff threw a birthday celebration for Daisy McFadden in the rehabilitation exercise room, where she has worked out three times per week since her bypass surgery 11 years ago. Her actual birthday was the following day.
“We only do this for the best,” said April Vail, who has been the manager of rehabilitation for 12 years. “Everybody loves her.”
“I come to exercise; that’s number one,” said McFadden, who was a nurse for 34 years. But she had a few other secrets to pass on. “I eat five vegetables every day, three fruits, and I steam them,” she said. The Bronx elder, who wore a turquoise jacket with tangerine accents and a matching scarf, was very proud of her health regimen.
“You have to take care of yourself so you can take care of other people,” she said.
Her bypass surgeon and rehabilitation team stood around her as her friends and the hospital staff sang “Happy Birthday.” McFadden blew out all of the candles with a deep breath and a swift puff. “It was all that exercise,” she said.
“I’m just full of happiness,” she said beaming as she mingled with about 15 party guests. She was on her feet for most of the afternoon without a cane or walker and appeared energetic as she entertained the constant stream of people wishing her a happy birthday and asking her secrets to great skin, endless energy, and a long life.
The youthful senior goes to bed at 9 p.m. and wakes up at 5 a.m. “Yes, and I get fully dressed,” she said. McFadden orders her clothing from the Bloomingdales, Talbots, and Nordstrom catalogs. Bloomingdales petite sizes fit well, she said, because the arms of regular sizes are too long for McFadden, who is built small with tiny wrists. She enjoys getting dressed, and said aging hasn’t slowed down the process, except for those occasions when she must replace the tiny batteries of her two hearing aids.
McFadden is lucky to be alive and in good health, said Dr. Lari Attai, who performed her triple bypass surgery 11 years ago. “Without surgery, she would have gone on to have a heart attack,” he said. Attai, 77, who has been with the hospital for 52 years, stopped performing surgery last year, and now teaches at the hospital. “You look terrific,” he told McFadden, whom he calls a “young lady.”
When McFadden was an even younger lady, she used to attend local social events and dance with her husband, a New York Police Department officer, whom she married in 1934. “We had a good life together, wonderful life together…over 50 years,” she said. Her husband died in 1985.
Another painful loss struck McFadden three years ago, when her only son, a Massachusetts radiologist named Samuel after her husband, also died four months after doctors diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer. “I miss him so,” McFadden said. “He was great.” His photo sits prominently on a side table in her living room, across from the front door, next to the couch. “It upsets me to talk about him,” she said. McFadden has two grandsons and two great-grandsons, who all live out of town.
McFadden was not only a nurse by profession, but a nurse by vocation to her family and friends. “I guess I was chosen to be a caregiver,” she said. “I’d do it all over again.”
An award from New York University’s nursing school hangs on her living room wall, honoring her for her career in nursing during which she spent 34 years working for the Bureau of Public Health. She is the only living graduate of her class.
Now, McFadden has so many people who care for her. A week and a half after her party, the cluster of mylar balloons in her living room have deflated slightly, but four bouquets of flowers are still bright and perky. The table next to the big beige couch with its dark sturdy wooden legs is too crowded with family photos to fit any cards, but McFadden neatly lined up about 20 birthday well-wishes on several other tables throughout the spacious room, decorated with an upholstered chair donned with a lace doily and a stone corner fireplace.
The number of cards and flowers is surprising for a woman who has outlived her family and friends, but not if you know McFadden.
She lives by this advice and repeats it over and over to young people: “You collect friends a generation behind you and a generation behind them.” That’s right, two generations of friends, she says, because when people become too old to drive, so are their peers.
McFadden doesn’t drive, but that certainly doesn’t limit her activities. Since her retirement in 1972, she has been on the move more than most people a third her age. She retired early, at 62, because she wanted to travel. She went on island cruises with her husband; visited Hawaii with her church, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and traveled extensively with the American Nurses Association, visiting India, Tokyo, Singapore, and Moscow. After retirement, she was very active in the Retired Senior and Volunteer Program, RSVP. Through this, she started the 60 Plus Food and Fun Club at her church. And to work off the food and fun, in the 1970s, she began the 60 Plus Swingers, an exercise and dance program. The dance group still exists though she said, “Many of the ones who started have passed on.” The Swingers perform at nursing homes, senior centers, and schools. Once, during a performance at Lehman College, one student yelled, “You go, grandma!” “That’s right. We are pretty hot,” she said, laughing.
The 60 Plus Swingers meetings are still part of McFadden’s routine, though she no longer can dance. Her knees have been hurting recently. “Of course, I’m the oldest one,” she said, adding that now she is the DJ. The Swingers dance to music from both records and CDs. “We’re up to date,” she said.
In addition to her church group, McFadden is a member of the 47th Precinct Council, the East 222nd Street Block Association, and a social club called “The Girlfriends” that began over 80 years ago. She is active in the alumni associations of both schools she attended, the Harlem Hospital Center School of Nursing, and New York University, where she earned her bachelors and masters degrees in nursing from 1951-1955 at a time when the school only cost $13 per credit. One birthday floral arrangement on her table is from the dean of the nursing program.
In the little spare time that McFadden has with all of her exercise and community involvement, she teaches a fitness class once a week at a local senior center as part of New York City’s Stay Well program. McFadden focuses on fitness as well as practical safety advice like turning on the light to go to the bathroom during the night to prevent falls.
“She’s been a positive role model to all of us,” said Jacqueline Sams, 74, whose mother went to nursing school with McFadden. Sams, who lives about five blocks from McFadden in Williamsbridge, calls her upbeat attitude “catchy.” Because of McFadden’s influence, Sams no longer eats red meat, and now says “74” proudly when asked her age.
McFadden is certainly not shy about her own age. She feels “blessed” to have lived such a long life, and her well-being has become her full-time job. Exercise at Montefiore, teaching at the senior center, grocery shopping, and cooking take up most of the day. But, she said, “there’s such a thing as necessary luxury.” For her, that means making time to get her hair and nails done twice a month at her favorite salon on West 57th Street in Manhattan.
Access-A-Ride drives McFadden to the salon, and she takes the express bus back to Williamsbridge, where she has lived in her tidy home since 1938. “Everyone knows me on the block,” she said. Her home, one of five houses in 1938 on the now-crowded block, is set back from East 222nd Street. Gray stone arches around the front door and white planters holding pink blossoms sit on either side of the front stoop. It looks like something from the set of a Hansel and Gretel performance. The brick facade, significantly less worn than the siding covering most of the block’s houses, is perfectly in place without any moss, dirt or visible signs of age.
Perhaps it’s something in the air.