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'I want to heal my patients as long as I am fit to do so'

In Hungary, 97-year-old Holocaust survivor doctor still receiving patients

Istvan Kormendi continues to practice medicine at his home clinic under the state healthcare system

97-year-old Hungarian doctor Istvan Kormendi speaks on phone in his doctor's office at his home in Budapest on March 22, 2021. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)
97-year-old Hungarian doctor Istvan Kormendi speaks on phone in his doctor's office at his home in Budapest on March 22, 2021. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

BUDAPEST, Hungary (AFP) — Hungarian family doctor and Holocaust survivor Istvan Kormendi, widely considered the oldest in his profession in the country, is still practicing his “passion” of healing patients at the age of 97.

Born 1923 in his parents’ apartment near the Castle district in the Hungarian capital, Kormendi has practiced there since qualifying as a doctor in 1950.

Although officially retired in 1989, Kormendi remains contracted to the state healthcare system and able to receive patients.

“My father was a doctor and set up this practice in 1920, I was born and raised as a child here,” he told AFP in the apartment that doubles as a clinic.

Among the artifacts stored on top of bookcases and inside medical cabinets are vintage apothecary bottles and old surgical kits with forceps and tweezers.

“At that time there were no large public health clinics as there are now, all the doctors ran practices in their apartments,” he said.

A portrait of his father in military uniform from his service as a doctor during World War I hangs on the wall, with another of Kormendi as a child.

97-year-old Hungarian doctor Istvan Kormendi shows his military doctor father’s portrait, while a portrait of him is seen on the right, in his doctor’s office at his home in Budapest on March 22, 2021. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

“That’s how I was, and this is what I became,” he said with a smile, pointing first at the painting and then at himself.

Inspired by his father Kormendi decided to become a doctor, but because of his Jewish background was barred from attending university during World War II.

Undaunted, he continued to attend classes while hiding his Jewish ancestry from classmates.

His determination persisted even after he was ordered into forced labor along with thousands of Jews after the Nazi German occupation of Hungary in March 1944.

“As well as two tins of canned food for survival I also packed in my backpack two third-year university textbooks,” he said.

Hiding in Budapest to avoid deportation to a death camp toward the end of the war, Kormendi even tended to a wounded German SS soldier who he saw bleeding on the street.

“It didn’t cross my mind that he was the enemy, and that probably he would have shot me had he known I was a Jew,” he said.

No plans to quit

These days some 300 local people are on Kormendi’s treatment list, including a grandmother in her seventies who he has treated since she was a child.

“Now she is pushing her own grandchild in a stroller,” said Kormendi, himself a grandfather of two, whose daughter is also a doctor.

97-year-old Hungarian doctor Istvan Kormendi sits in his doctor’s office at his home in Budapest on March 22, 2021. (ATTILA KISBENEDEK / AFP)

The COVID-19 pandemic has made his work more difficult, he admitted, as nowadays he treats most patients by phone or email even though he was recently vaccinated.

“I don’t really like it as it is terribly important in the doctor-patient relationship to have personal face-to-face contact,” he said while sending an email.

He also worries that “remote but convenient” treatment will remain in the long term, which would “reduce the quality of medical treatment”.

Still, Kormendi, who said he often works late into the evening, has no plans to quit.

“It’s my passion, I want to heal my patients as long as I am fit to do so,” he said.

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