The Optimized Doctor

Words from the wise


“When 900-years-old you reach, look as good you will not.” –Yoda

I’ve been on a roll lately: 100, 94, 90, 97, 94. These aren’t grades or even what I scratched on my scorecard for 18 holes (that’s more like 112), but rather patients I’ve seen.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio, director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego.

Dr. Jeffrey Benabio

Our oldest-old have been in COVID-19 protection for the last couple of years and only now feel safe to come out again. Many have skin cancers. Some of them have many. I’m grateful that for all their health problems, basal cell carcinomas at least I can cure. And while I treat them, I get the benefit of hearing directly from our elders. I love asking them for general life advice. Here are a few things I learned.

From a 94-year-old woman who was just discharged from the hospital for sepsis: First, sepsis can sneak up from behind and jump you when you’re 94. She was sitting in a waiting room for a routine exam when she passed out and woke up in the ICU. She made it home and is back on her feet, literally. When I asked her how she made it though, she was very matter of fact. Trust that the doctors know what’s right. Trust that someone will tell you what to do next. Trust that you know your own body and what you can and cannot do. Ask for help, then simply trust it will all work out. It usually does.

From a 97-year-old fighter pilot who fought in the Korean War: Let regrets drop away and live to fight another day. He’s had multiple marriages, built and lost companies, been fired and fired at, and made some doozy mistakes, some that caused considerable pain and collateral damage. But each day is new and requires your best. He has lived long enough to love dozens of grandkids and give away more than what most people ever make. His bottom line, if you worry and fret and regret, you’ll make even more mistakes ahead. Look ahead, the ground never comes up from behind you.

From a 94-year-old whose son was killed in a car accident nearly 60 years ago: You can be both happy and sad. When she retold the story of how the police knocked on her door with the news that her son was dead, she started to cry. Even 60 years isn’t long enough to blunt such pain. She still thinks of him often and to this day sometimes finds it difficult to believe he’s gone. Such pain never leaves you. But she is still a happy person with countless joys and is still having such fun. If you live long enough, both will likely be true.

From a 90-year old who still played tennis: “Just one and one.” That is, one beer and one shot, every day. No more. No less. I daren’t say I recommend this one; however, it might also be the social aspect of drinking that matters. He also advised to be free with friendships. You’ll have many people come in and out of your life; be open to new ones all the time. Also sometimes let your friends win.

From a 100-year-old, I asked how he managed to get through the Great Depression, WWII, civil unrest of the 1950s, and the Vietnam War. His reply? “To be honest, I’ve never seen anything quite like this before.”

When there’s time, consider asking for advice from those elders who happen to have an appointment with you. Bring you wisdom, they will.

Dr. Benabio is director of Healthcare Transformation and chief of dermatology at Kaiser Permanente San Diego. The opinions expressed in this column are his own and do not represent those of Kaiser Permanente. Dr. Benabio is @Dermdoc on Twitter. Write to him at

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