For 21 years, Dr. Patrice Moreno and her patients have exchanged much more than pleasantries.
By LANE DeGREGORY
Published May 25, 2004
[Times photos: Carrie Pratt]
Dr. Stephen Scranton, with camera, takes a picture of his wife, Dr. Patrice Moreno, flanked by her patient Wendell Sheets and his wife, Betty. Sheets has been going to Moreno's office about once a month since 1987.
Dr. Patrice Moreno talks with a longtime patient at a luncheon she held in their honor, at Countryside Country Club.
CLEARWATER - The heart patients lined up outside the banquet room just before noon. The women were wearing bright dresses, cardigans and pearls. Some of the men had donned jackets and ties.
On their way in, they stopped to sign a thick guest book with a red heart on the cover:
"Thank you very, very much for all my lives."
"I didn't think I'd live this long, thank you."
"I'm still here - thank God and you."
They passed the black pen from person to person. Then they hugged the woman who had invited them here.
Dr. Patrice Moreno is a cardiologist at Mease Dunedin Hospital. For 21 years, she has taken care of people's hearts. Some of her patients have been with her since she started her practice.
Last Thursday, she asked them to join her for lunch at Countryside Country Club.
They didn't know why.
* * *
Most of the guests didn't know each other. They had only exchanged nods in Moreno's waiting room. So while black-tied waiters filled water glasses and John Tesh music wafted over the round tables, the patients introduced themselves and swapped stories about the person who had brought them together.
"Oh, I met her just after she had her first child. Patrick is what, 19 now? Anyway, she was just excellent from the beginning, so patient and thorough," said Cleo McCurdy, 79. She lives in Dunedin. She has seven grandkids.
"And in two weeks, I'll have my first great-grandchild," she said proudly. "Oh, I never thought I'd be around to see that. Dr. Moreno, she keeps me right."
Wendell Sheets is 80. He has survived two surgeries: a single bypass and a quadruple. He has been going to see Moreno once a month, more or less, since 1987, when his general physician told him he should see a specialist. "My doctor told me she was cute, so I should take her," he said, laughing. "Oh, we fight sometimes. I don't always agree about my care.
"But she's kept me alive all these years."
* * *
The cardiologist wore a sun dress, a filmy, peach tea-length that flowed around her slender frame. Heeled, backless sandals added a couple of inches to her petite height. Her light-brown hair was layered in a pixie.
"I'm so glad you all are here," she said. "I'm glad you're getting to know each other."
She introduced her husband, Dr. Stephen Scranton, an internal medicine specialist at Mease Countryside Hospital. Then she asked her mom to stand. "This is my mom, Ann Moreno. She's the one who said I could be whatever I wanted to," she said. "And I did."
In high school in Massachusetts, Patrice Moreno volunteered as a hospital candy striper. She went to Albany Medical College. She interned at Northwestern in Chicago, where she met her husband. "And you all know me as well as I know all of you," Moreno told her patients. "Patrick is coming home from his first year at Boston College tomorrow. And most of you know Ashley," she said, putting her arm around her daughter. "She's a junior at Clearwater Central Catholic."
Ashley sat next to her grandmother. Sheets, the 80-year-old, was on Ashley's other side. He leaned over and whispered, "I've seen your pictures all over the office. At this age and that age and some other age.
"You sure look like your mother," he said.
Ashley stared at her lap. "Thank you," she said. "I guess."
* * *
By the time waiters brought bread, 27 patients had hugged Moreno. One seat was empty.
Where was Mr. Hulse?
Moreno looked at the door, anxiously, then put a Billy Joel CD into the boombox she had brought. She skipped a couple of tracks and went straight to Piano Man. "Well it's 9 o'clock on a Saturday, the regular crowd shuffles in . . . "
She walked toward the head table and stood behind her chair. She looked across the room. All those familiar faces, still smiling back.
She had helped them through murmurs and medications, pacemakers and quadruple bypasses. She knows what they did before they retired, when and why they moved to Florida. She has seen photos of their grandkids - and of the grandkids' kids.
Mr. Hulse was one of her first patients. She had been treating him since he retired and moved from New Jersey to Palm Harbor. He is one of her oldest and most fragile friends.
He should have been here by now.
* * *
While the guests buttered rolls, they talked about their homes up North. About their grandkids. About growing old.
Barbara Nourse and her husband, Freeman, have been married for 57 years. They used to live in New Hampshire. They moved to Florida in 1985.
"Lately, now, we've been spending more time at doctors' offices than at our own home," Mrs. Nourse said. Other guests nodded. They understood.
"I've been going to Dr. Moreno ever since we moved here. She sits and spends time with you and really makes you feel comfortable," Mrs. Nourse continued. "She found a tumor in my heart. That saved my life."
Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Lawrence Schuetta has had two heart attacks. "I was one of Dr. Moreno's first patients," he said. "She's keeping me alive."
Some people wondered, aloud, what they would do without her. How would they survive? "What if she retires?" a woman in bifocals asked.
The man next to her put down his fork. "Is that why she invited us all here?"
* * *
The gray-haired man was leaning on a woman, his left shoulder slumped against her side. He walked slowly into the room and stood behind Moreno. His right shoulder drooped beneath the strap of a black bag.
A long loop of plastic tubing stretched like a leash from the bag to the man's nose.
When Moreno saw him, she threw her arms around him. She turned to the room, beaming with relief: "And here's Mr. Hulse!"
Spencer Hulse looked embarrassed. He cinched the bag up his shoulder.
Softly, he explained, "We had a little trouble with the oxygen."
* * *
Minestrone with pasta shaped like little tennis rackets. Mixed green salad with jumbo shrimp or grilled chicken. London broil and mashed potatoes with gravy.
This, for heart patients?
The cardiologist approved the menu. She doesn't tell her patients to eliminate red meat or eat only heart-friendly foods. She preaches moderation.
She even ordered dessert.
"This is a celebration for her patients," her husband said. "We had to do it before we lost any more of them."
Between courses, Moreno made her way around the tables, asking about bad backs and tired eyes and summer vacation plans. She knows who usually retreats to Michigan and whose grandkids visit when. She receives scores of postcards from cruise ships.
"And when did you say you're leaving?"
"And are the kids coming in August again?"
"What is the great-grandbaby's name going to be?"
At 1:15, dessert was served. Carrot cake with cream cheese frosting and a generous dollop of whipped cream. Topped by a maraschino cherry.
Moreno stood behind her chair. The room went silent. "Thank you so much for coming," she said. "And no, I'm not retiring." Applause erupted.
"You scared me to death," said a man at the back table. "We thought you were going to leave us."
Moreno isn't ready to retire. She won't say how old she is, but her last birthday was so unwelcome she left town so it wouldn't find her. She is as old now as some of these patients were when they started coming to see her.
"I just started getting real nostalgic," she said during dessert. "Three of these people here today, they had the big one during my first three months as a doctor; 21 years later, they're still with me.
"I love all these people," Moreno said, sniffling. "I just wanted to have lunch with them."
After waiters cleared away the carrot cake, Moreno addressed her guests one last time.
"I don't want to wait another 21 years to do this. Let's have lunch again, all of us, in 10 years."
Edith Carroll, 93, spoke up from her seat by the wall.
"I don't think I'll make it another 21 years," she said.
"Yes you will, Edith," said the cardiologist. "Because you have a very good doctor."