At 98 years old, Dr. Irma Waldo has certainly lived a lot of life. Moreover, as a practicing physician serving the rural Columbia County, NY, community for over 70 years, she’s seen a lot of patients.
Irma was born in Bronxville, NY, and grew up in Mount Vernon, NY. She went on to attend medical school at the University of Buffalo, and she later completed her 18-month internship at Erie County Medical Center.
The internship she chose was a rotating residency/internship combination, which allowed her to get broad experience in multiple different medical fields, including pediatrics, obstetrics, medicine, minor surgery, and emergency medicine. All of this would come in handy later when she would start her own private practice.
Dr. Irma shared that two major inspirations pushed her to attend medical school. The first was the dean at her high school in Mount Vernon; “I told her I was going to be a nurse, and she said ‘no, you should be a doctor.’”
The other was her mother, who marched for women’s suffrage and was a pillar of female strength in Dr. Irma’s life growing up. “That can-do attitude was right there all my life. She always gave me big, responsible things to do.”
As one can imagine, attending medical school in the 1940s was not easy. There were ten women in her class, including Dr. Irma, and she said that the women “weren’t very welcome” in the program. “The men would always ask us ‘Why do you want to be doctors? You’re going to get married and have babies, and then you’re never going to practice,’ and I would say ‘Do you think I went through all of this to not practice?’ So that was something that always stuck in my head.”
Dr. Irma also shared that the medical and dental programs were the same courses for the first two years, so because the number of medical students was higher than that of the dental students, they moved the ten women over to study with the dental program for their first two years. “It was much more fun,” Dr. Irma laughs. “They weren’t competitive at all.”
If it hadn’t been for the overabundance of medical students, she may not have met her husband John Waldo, a dental student at the University of Buffalo. “He wooed me so persistently that I finally married him upon graduation.”
From Buffalo to Hillsdale
Upon completing her internship, she knew she no longer wanted to stay in Buffalo, so she made the move back to Westchester County. Upon arriving, however, she found that her town had become more urban and crowded. In an attempt to find a more rural setting, she fled north.
Traveling up Route 22, Dr. Irma saw the Berkshires, the farms, and the greenspace, and said she “knew this is where I wanted to be.”
Upon arriving in Hillsdale, Dr. Irma saw that there was an opening at the Rip Van Winkle Clinic for a pediatrician and quickly applied. It was serendipitous because her husband John, who too had graduated and was now a dentist, also applied for a job at the Rip Van Winkle Clinic. They would go on to serve the Hillsdale community together for many years.
During her time at the Rip Van Winkle Clinic, she worked half days so that she was able to spend mornings with her four young children. Although Dr. Irma technically worked in pediatrics, she handled a variety of patients of all ages and frequently made house calls.
The tradition of making house calls is something she would carry with her when she opened her own practice in 1952. She said that because she made house calls, she “got to know families very well.”
“I was blessed, I was loved, and I loved them all back,” she said. “I cared for the poor, even during my time in Buffalo. I got to know and really understand the plight of the poor, and always in my practice I did my best to take care of the poor.”
Indeed she did. Dr. Irma shared that during the holidays, she always sent Christmas cards to her patients, many of whom were carrying a heavy burden of medical expenses and debt.
Each new year, she would wipe the slate clean for those of her patients who owed money. She encouraged her patients to pay some of it if they could, but many times they could not. “Some paid a little; few paid all of it. Others brought fruit and vegetables from their farms or baby clothes to pass on to others who needed them,” she said.
When asked if she had any crazy stories from her time as a medical professional, Dr. Irma nodded her head and quickly responded yes. She then went on to recount stories about an incident in the 1950s when she was a young doctor. There was a preemie baby in an incubator weighing in at under three pounds, and her parents wanted to take her home because they couldn’t afford to keep the baby in the hospital. Dr. Irma was brought in to try to dissuade the parents from taking the baby home, but they chose to anyway, despite her warnings that the baby would likely not be able to feed and therefore not survive out of the incubator.
Soon thereafter, she received a phone call from the couple begging for help to save their baby. She arrived at the house to find the baby swaddled inside a blanket in a bureau drawer that was sitting atop a lit oven door in an attempt to keep warm. After being unable to convince the parents to return the baby to the hospital, she left to go purchase formula and a feeding syringe. Upon her arrival back at the house, she was greeted not with relief and gratitude, but with a gun. The father pointed his gun at her and demanded that she stay at their home and save their baby.
After rigging a small bottle for the baby to feed out of, Dr. Irma returned to her own home and immediately called the sheriff. “I just said, ‘I don’t know how to deal with this,’ and he came over to the house with me,” she said. “He knocked on the door and told the father that he was going to arrest him for threatening the doctor with a gun and for threatening his baby’s life if he didn’t bring that baby back to the hospital. So we all rode back to the hospital in the sheriff’s car. That’s certainly a story that always sticks with me.”
From pediatric to geriatric
In addition to her private practice, Dr. Irma also started the first hospice program in the Northeast with her neighbor, best friend, and nurse Yvonne DelGrande. In 1976, the all-volunteer program grew to become first Roe Jan Hospice, then Columbia County Hospice, and later was absorbed by Hudson Valley Hospice.
The hospice program was started after Dr. Irma received a phone call about a three-year-old patient who was dying of a brain tumor and had maybe three months to live. The New York City doctor told her that the girl wanted to live the rest of her life in her summer home in Columbia County and asked if she would be willing to make house calls to care for her. Dr. Irma of course said yes.
Over the next three months, Dr. Irma and Yvonne took care of the mother and the child, and were able to keep her comfortable through the end of her very short life. “When the end came, she was in her mother’s arms with nurse Yvonne’s arms around both of them. That’s how it should be,” she said. “Afterwards, Yvonne and I looked at each other and said ‘This is something we can do.’” Thus, hospice care in upstate New York was born.
Dr. Irma’s next endeavor was starting the Red Door in the late 1970s. The Red Door was a walk-in service for alcoholics and drug abusers that offered counseling, distribution of literature, and treatment for addiction. It later became Twin County Recovery. “I loved it. It was intense work, but I was so fortunate to do it,” she said.
A religious woman, Dr. Irma would often pray with her patients with the help of some of the other counselors, one of whom was a monk from St. Joseph Center in Valatie. “One day, the director stepped into the room while we were praying, and I was worried she was going to tell us we couldn’t do that anymore, but all she did was smile, give me a thumbs up, and back out of the room quietly,” she said. “Being able to pray with the patients was a real blessing, for us and them.”
Dr. Irma served as medical director of Twin County Recovery until she was 93 years old.
During her time at Rip Van Winkle, she was on-call on Saturdays and frequently received phone calls from Catamount Mountain Resort needing her to come examine someone for an injury. Eventually, she decided to take ski lessons herself. When the ski patrol found out that there was a doctor skiing, they asked if she would be interested in serving on the ski patrol.
Dr. Irma served as a member of the ski patrol up until ten years ago, when she finally took a step away at 88 years old.
“I had learned to be more cautious when I was skiing, especially since I had just had both hips replaced at that point. Each time I looked up, there were two ski patrol members watching me, regardless of where I was. Finally I said, ‘Are you following me?’ and they said ‘Yes! You’re 88 and you might fall. We want to be there in case you get hurt.’ So I decided it was probably time to take a step back,” she laughed.
Other jobs that she held after retiring from her private practice included medical director at both Pine Haven Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Philmont and the Meadows at Brookmeade (formerly known at the Baptist Home) in Rhinebeck.
“I went the whole way from pediatric to geriatric,” Dr. Irma laughed. “It was a good thing that I took that rotating internship.”
Healthcare then and now
Dr. Irma expressed great concern when asked how healthcare has changed over the time that she’s been in the medical field. “Right now, I think our healthcare system is broken. I don’t know what happened to it after the pandemic, and I don’t understand it,” she said. “You have to wait six weeks for an appointment and there aren’t many doctors around anymore. It’s even hard for me to find a doctor.”
She said that the Rip Van Winkle Clinic provided great customer service to the citizens in the area, but things like house calls, on-call doctors, and immediate appointments have become a thing of the past.
“Even the rapid care nearby has closed down. It shouldn’t be this difficult to find care.”
Reflecting on life
If she hadn’t been asked to retire at 93 years old, Dr. Irma said she would probably still be practicing. “My practice was very fulfilling and I miss it greatly,” she said.
When asked if there was anything that she wanted the community to know about her, she laughed lightly. “I think they know me. I’m so blessed to have been able to do this for so long. But I hope the community knows that I’m a bit afraid of having this notoriety. I’m quite humble, and I don’t like the grandeur. That’s just who I am.” •
You can purchase Dr. Irma Waldo’s new book The Doctor Wore High Heels through The Troy Book Makers at shoptbmbooks.com/The_Doctor_Wore_High_Heels.html