Life expectancy in the United States has increased by more than 30 years over the past century—from an average of 47 years in 1900 to an average of 78 years today. Access to health care is a major reason for this shift.
Ted Adderly, 67
Two years ago, Ted Adderly was fighting for his life and the chance to walk his beloved daughter, Teddi, down the aisle at her wedding.
“I knew I had heart issues,” Adderly recalled. “What I did not know was the extreme urgency that I was involved in. I had known about the congestive heart failure for a few years and I tried to live with it.”
But during a routine check-up, doctors realized his symptoms had worsened dramatically. “
They rushed me to Memorial Hermann in the Texas Medical Center, did an evaluation and once again determined my situation was critical. They admitted me for testing,” he said.
Adderly’s health began to decline soon after his daughter announced her engagement.
“My daughter, Teddi, was the firstborn, dad’s only girl, and she has grown up to be a very beautiful and intelligent young lady,” Adderly said. “The goal was to have me walk her down the aisle and she asked the doctors how likely it was that I would be alive long enough.”
After months of languishing in the hospital, Adderly’s already-serious condition took an even more momentous turn.
“One afternoon, I was sitting in my hospital bed and the doctor came to check on my monitor and in the time he was standing there, he saw that my heart was about to stop,” Adderly said. “A heart attack and heart failure are two different things—you can survive a heart attack, but the possibility of surviving heart failure is totally different. He said I had about 30 minutes left.”
The only chance for survival was a heart transplant.
“I was blessed enough to get a heart in 21 minutes,” Adderly said. “A doctor from the transplant team called and told me they had found me a heart and a kidney and they wanted to do the transplant immediately. At 1:21 p.m. I got the call, at 1:25 I was in the operating room and probably about 1:30, they were doing their work. After about six to eight hours of surgery, they put in the heart. They waited a day to put in the kidney, then two and a half days later, I woke up from a medically-induced coma and I had no clue that the surgery had been completed. I woke up in no pain and about three or four days after surgery, I was released to go home.”
Adderly walked his daughter down the aisle and their story was shared on TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress.” In addition, he has welcomed two grandchildren to the family.
“That was two years ago and I have not looked back,” Adderly said. “My heart is wonderful—my donor was 25 years old and I’m doing almost anything I want to. The only restriction I have is diet and alcohol in extreme moderation. I still enjoy a little red wine, but other than that, my life has not changed.”
—Britni R. McAshan
Frieda Frazier, 70
Frieda Frazier typically bowls a 160 when she’s out with her church group—women in one lane, men in another.
“We just play to have a good time,” Frazier said.
She has four children, 15 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. She and her husband, Curtis, live with their oldest daughter and her family in a house they built together 17 years ago.
At home and at play, Frazier is an active member of an extended community.
But in 2012, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer, her role in both worlds was threatened.
“I went to the doctor that April—I knew the lump was there,” Frazier, now 70, said. “I did chemo through October, surgery in November, then radiation from January to the end of February.”
Surgeons removed 19 lymph nodes around Frazier’s right breast during the lumpectomy, although only one was cancerous. Her oncologist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center assured her they had caught the cancer in time. And they had. But it was a long haul from diagnosis to recovery. Frazier, a senior account manager at a Houston insurance services company, didn’t work for nine months.
“Chemo didn’t like me,” she said.
And then, in 2016, Frazier faced an entirely different health crisis: she found herself increasingly short of breath. After a trip to New York City, during which she struggled to walk around Central Park, Frazier’s primary doctor referred her to a cardiologist.
“He came into the office and said ‘We have two votes, yours and mine, and mine counts most,’” Frazier recalled. “He said ‘I want to put you in a wheelchair and roll you to St. Luke’s … and we’re going to put you through the emergency room because you really look like you’re a heart attack waiting to happen.’”
Around 10 p.m. the same night, Frazier learned she would be undergoing heart surgery the next morning.
“Having a double bypass was a cinch compared to having cancer,” she said. “I never was scared and it didn’t really hurt as bad as I thought it would. They glue you back together.”
She was released from the hospital after six days.
Today, Frazier works 40 hours a week and has advice for anyone who’ll listen: “You have to go to the doctor. We live in a medical center town that has some of the best doctors in the world. It would be a shame to lose your life because you won’t go see them.”
She often thinks of something her 88-year-old mother told her, something that has become a mantra for both her and her mom.
“After my dad died,” Frazier recalled, “my mother said, ‘I’m not going to sit in this chair and wither away and not live my life. I’m going to keep on moving.’”
Joe Ramirez, 88
In November 1950, 18-year-old Houston native Joe Ramirez was captured while serving as a U.S. Army scout sniper in the Korean War.
Held captive in North Korea for nearly three years—33 months and one day, to be exact—Ramirez expected to die in the prison camp.
“I was shot five times when they captured me and they didn’t have medical care in that camp,” Ramirez recalled. “We lost 1,600 men that winter and I used to sit out there, looking at the piles of bodies, and wonder when I would be next.”
Because of harsh winters, malaria and so much time in captivity, Ramirez got down to 87 pounds as a prisoner of war. He believes his fellow soldiers’ dandelion tea kept him alive.
Upon his release, Ramirez went on to serve another 22 years in the military, retiring as a master sergeant. With war in his rear view mirror, another battle for survival lay ahead of him.
“Seventeen years ago, I got colon cancer,” Ramirez said. “They cut a big piece of my intestine to get rid of the two-inch strip of cancer.”
In retirement, Ramirez, now 88, found work teaching inmates at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice how to make eyeglasses. He enjoys staying active.
“I wake up at 4 a.m. I’m on the road to the gym by 5 a.m. I go down and work out at the VA, lie down for a couple of hours, piddle around in the yard with my plants and then if my wife wants to go somewhere, we’ll drive around. I’ve got a good wife—we’ve been married 34 years,” he said. “My first wife died of breast cancer and we were married for 26 years—she’s the mother of all my kids. I have two boys and two girls. I lost my young son in an accident eight years ago.”
In 2013, Ramirez was invited to the White House to honor his mentor and the man who baptized him, the late Father Emil Kapaun. Kapaun was a Roman Catholic priest and a U.S. Army captain who served as a chaplain in World War II and the Korean War. He died in 1951 as a prisoner of war in North Korea, in the same camp where Ramirez was held.
“I was at the White House with Obama when he awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor to Father Kapaun,” Ramirez said. “There were only five POWs invited and I was one of them.”
But as the years have passed, fewer and fewer of Ramirez’ fellow soldiers are left.
“We are like the veterans from the Second World War—we are too old,” he said. “We used to have reunions every year, but they had to quit because too many of the guys were sick. You have to figure, I was 18 years old when I went to war and I am 88. A lot of them are gone.”
This past summer, during a regular check-up at the Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center – Houston, Ramirez was told his cancer had returned.
“They discovered the cancer about a month ago—they call it colon, but they said I have a spot on my liver and a spot on my lung,” he said. “I started urinating blood and they found those spots.”
Ramirez has been going to the VA for chemotherapy treatments.
“Life is great; I’m just happy that I’m here and alive today,” he said. “Every morning when I get up, I open my eyes and I say, ‘Thank you, Lord.’”
—Britni R. McAshan
Joseph “Pappy” Colwell, 98
At 98, Joseph Colwell—know to everyone as Pappy—claims to be the oldest living World War II Marine in the Houston area.
“Probably in all of Texas,” Colwell ventured.
Colwell has three children and four grandchildren. His beloved wife, Frances, died in 2008.
When people find out he is almost 100, the first question they ask is: What do you eat?
“I tell them, and I’m serious, I eat everything that’s bad for you and nothing that’s good for you,” Colwell said.
He favors meat and potatoes, reaching for Cheez-It crackers and potato chips when he’s watching a baseball or football game on TV. Coffee ice cream is also part of his personal food pyramid.
“I used to put three or four scoops in a bowl every single night,” Colwell said. “I quit doing that maybe a year ago. I eat it right out of the bucket now. I’m not going to dirty a dish.”
Colwell is living with his second pacemaker, implanted about three years ago. The first one lasted seven years and was implanted after he ended up in the emergency room with a heart racing so fast it woke him from a sound sleep. He is so used to the pacemaker, he just forgets it’s there.
Seven years ago, Colwell sustained a brain injury. He tumbled off a bar stool at his son’s beach house in Corpus Christi and hit his head. At first he seemed fine, but about a week later he started leaning to one side and having difficulty walking. His family rushed him to the emergency room.
Colwell ended up undergoing brain surgery at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center. His doctor said his brain had actually shifted to the side in his skull. Surgeons went in and drained blood and fluid.
“I’ve got an indentation where they drilled into my skull,” Colwell said. “The doctor said it was a good thing I was as old as I was. He said in older people the brain has a little room to move—it’s got more space. He said if I had been a younger guy, in my 50s or so, I’d have been dead.”
Originally from Hudson, New York, Colwell moved his family to Houston in 1957. He got a job delivering mail for the post office, then went on to became a foreman. When he retired, he was superintendent of route inspectors.
Colwell lives on his own and sees his children and grandchildren often.
But he’s honest about the frustrations of day-to-day life as a near-centenarian. “One of my former favorite pastimes was golf,” he said. “Can’t play golf now. The knees the way they are, I couldn’t do it. So I have no hobbies to speak of. And it’s very frustrating. … I’ll get up and I’ll think, so this is life. I’m going to get my breakfast, worry about what I’m going to fix for lunch. There are no ball games on tonight … and what am I going to do tomorrow?”
So he stays busy. He works out four days a week, driving himself to the gym in his 2014 Mustang GT. He does the same workout each day: treadmill for 30 minutes and then dumbbells, arm weights and the stomach machine for another 30.
“Working out has gotten to be like an addiction,” Colwell said. “I have to go. And I know there are quite a few people over at the gym that go because they find out how old I am and they’ll think, ‘Well, if he can do it, I can do it.’ I’ll wake up and I’ll think, ‘I don’t want to go to the gym today.’ Then I’ll think, ‘Well, so-and-so’s there because I come there. Gotta go. Gotta go.’”
Mary Coffey, 110
Born March 20, 1909 in Burgin, Kentucky, Mary Coffey has seen two world wars, victory for the women’s suffrage movement, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, a man on the moon and the swift rise of the internet.
Her father, a shrewd businessman who ran racehorses, foresaw the Great Depression; he sold his land and all but two of their horses and moved his family to Rosenberg, Texas, where he purchased a feed store and rode out the poverty-stricken era through bartering.
By the time Coffey was 13, her father had purchased a Model T Ford, which she would drive down cow trails from Rosenberg to Houston.
In 1928, she married Otis Coffey, who coached Olympic track and field and boxing teams in Pakistan and helped start 15 commercial colleges abroad. She joined him on his travels and, according to her son, David, has been around the world 18 times and has met presidents, kings and the Queen of England. Her favorite U.S. president is Barack Obama, David added, from whom she has received no fewer than three letters.
“It’s amazing the places that I have been and seen, because I have made friends with all of these people, and they would take me to the most personal places you ever saw—places that you’d never get to on your own,” Coffey said after a bible study in April at Colonial Oaks Senior Living in Sugar Land, where she currently resides.
Although Coffey has enjoyed excellent health throughout the majority of her 110 years, she has been treated at hospitals in the Texas Medical Center for routine tests and minor ailments.
Coffey’s mind remains sharp. She credits her longevity to three things: prayer, bible study, and POND’S cold cream. Not long ago, the skincare company sent her a year’s supply after hearing her speak so highly of them.
“I wish they’d send me another year’s supply,” Coffey said in April.
“That’s what you call faith,” her son, David, replied.
— Alexandra Becker
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