Elderly Emanuel County man example age now less a factor in surgery decision-making

James Whitehead reminisced Monday about moving to Emanuel County when he was four years old, when it was just cotton farms or people tapping pine trees to make turpentine and cars were a rare sight. That Whitehead, who turned 100 years old on Oct. 8, is around to remember it is a testament to his family and to his neurosurgeon at AU Medical Center.

 

In July, his family grew concerned about weakness on his right side that was almost a paralysis and his apparent confusion. They became convinced it was more than the side effects of his medication and pushed to get him treated, said his grandson, Mark.

Eventually, Whitehead ended up at AUMC and in the hands of neurosurgeon Cole Giller. Fluid in Whitehead’s brain had for whatever reason begun to fill up on the left side and push the brain over.

“And then, someone could have a minor head bump,” Giller said. “And they can start bleeding and it bleeds into that cavity and then it just kind of escalates until the brain is pushed over. This is not uncommon in the elderly population.’

Whitehead’s age didn’t even enter into the equation, he said.

“Why should you deny that treatment because they are 99 years old?” Giller said. “When I laid eyes on him, there was never any doubt in my mind.”

That wasn’t always the case. Prior to World War II, operating on someone who was elderly was not routinely done and even in the 1950s and early 1960s there was debate about whether the elderly were good candidates for surgery, according to a 2013 review article in The Milbank Quarterly.

The advent of Medicare in 1965 greatly increased hospital coverage and led to greater numbers of elderly patients undergoing procedures but even in the early 1980s there was debate about, for instance, whether to perform heart surgery on patients in their 80s, with one study showing those patients had twice the death rate as patients in their late 60s, according to the review. But since then, age has become much less of a factor in surgical decision-making than looking at what other medical problems the patient might have that could affect the outcome.

Whitehead had a second procedure in August to again drain the fluid and on Monday was back to see Giller for a follow-up appointment.

“Your x-rays look great,” Giller told him. “The fluid is not completely gone on the left (side) but it is better than it was before. It looks a lot better than a month ago.”

The confusion that plagued him earlier is also gone and his grandson recently started writing down some of Whitehead’s memories, which go back 96 years to when his family moved from Laurens County to Emanuel County.

“It was a great farming country and turpentine,” he said. “There ain’t no turpentine now because they quit (making it) and they went and cut the trees down. But back when they moved me to Oak Park, there were two turpentine stills, two gin houses (cotton gins), a saw mill, all in low place they called Oak Park. And now there ain’t even a grocery store there, they closed the grocery store down.”

There weren’t many cars in the county then so children would run to the road to watch one go by.

“We’d watch it as long as we (could) because we didn’t see one often,” Whitehead said. “There was one every now and then. They called that a Model T and they went from a Model T to a Model A.”

He remembers how they used to take an axe and cut a hole in the pine trees to get the sap, “the tar,” to flow down, collecting it in a bucket and then dumping it in a barrel before taking it to make turpentine. He talked to his grandson about farming, about sharecropping, about his wife, Mary Etta, to whom he was married for 78 years before she died in 2015 at the age of 99, just shy of her 100th birthday. He has a very simple answer for how to keep a marriage alive that long.

“Love,” he said, and then he just smiled.

“He remembers everything,” Mark Whitehead said.

“I feel better since the surgery,” James Whitehead said.

There is also a pretty simple formula for how to get to be 100 and to be doing as well as he is.

“The main thing is working for God and believing in God and living right and treating your fellow man right,” James Whitehead said.

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213

or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.

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