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Mind Over Matter: Retired La Jolla psychiatrist Louis Gessay readies for 100th birthday

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Soon-to-be-centenarian and La Jolla resident Louis Gessay
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

When soon-to-be-centenarian Louis Gessay sets his sights on something — it happens.

For example, he always wanted to live in California, and was a resident by his 20s; he wanted to be a psychiatrist at a time when it wasn’t considered a respected profession, and had his own practice by his 30s; he wanted to be a member of the La Jolla Country Club, and remains one of its most notable. In fact, Gessay has been a member for so long, he will become an Honorary Lifetime Member on his 100th birthday — Friday, Aug. 16.

The youngest of seven children, Gessay grew up in Connecticut, but was forever California dreaming.

“I have always had the wish, even back in college, to come to California,” he told La Jolla Light. “I made a point to meet people that came from California, and I never wanted to make a decision about my future until I got to see California.”

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A medical student in training, Gessay was a protégé for a doctor who was grooming him for a life in surgery.

“But I knew I didn’t want to be a surgeon. I knew I couldn’t do it,” he said. “My first wife Peggy was a nurse in the Harvard psychiatric unit, so I was introduced to some of the people there.”

Gessay gradually made his way through ranks studying and practicing psychiatry — but soon, military service came calling.

After completing an internship at the U.S. Naval Hospital during World War II, he was deployed to the Philippines with a troop “training for a Japanese invasion” that never came. But the war ended soon after he arrived, which he said, “was the biggest break of my life.”

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He returned to the East Coast to begin a psychiatry residency in Boston, and was named a certified specialist by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology in 1951.

“I was good at solving problems, so I didn’t find psychiatry, it found me,” he said. “But many of my friends were doctors, and laughed at me when I told them I was in psychiatry. My colleagues thought psychiatrists were flakes or arrogant people.”

Gessay was called back to military service in 1953, and served in the Korean War, stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego as a Navy psychiatrist.

Now in California, his wife and children Lauren (now deceased), Greg and Glenn followed in 1954. The family bought a house in Ocean Beach and Gessay opened a psychiatric practice — as one of seven board certified psychiatrists in San Diego — across from Balboa Park.

But just to be sure San Diego was the place for the family (remember, he just wanted to live in California, not a particular area), he explored the state to see where he might want to settle. “My family and I drove from San Diego to San Francisco and we stopped in Long Beach, Carmel and Santa Barbara to see what all these places had to offer. I thought they could all be nice, but San Diego would be the most productive and my children were there.”

Once settled, Gessay observed that he was “five years ahead” in training than those around him in the psychiatric field.

Most notably, Gessay introduced an anesthetic medication to administer to patients undergoing electro-shock treatment to make the experience less painful.

“He was the chief of staff at Vista Hill (psychiatric hospital), and at that time, the movie ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ was giving shock treatments a bad reputation, but he believed in it,” his son Glenn said. “He instituted anesthetics as part of the process and took shock treatments into a whole new <FZ,1,0,23>realm where it would produce results without it being such a traumatic procedure.”

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As controversial as it may be, Gessay still said he believes that electro-shock therapy is a valuable tool. “I think it is a big mistake that electroconvulsive treatments are not as widely used anymore,” he said. “People think these treatments are passé or even unacceptable, but I still believe modified treatments are appropriate for some people. It rewires synapses and pathways.”

He also believed in bringing people together to share information and best practices, his sons said.

Six years after he opened his San Diego practice, he moved it to Girard Avenue in La Jolla. “I wanted to be a member of the La Jolla Country Club so I could play golf there,” he laughed, adding that he opened his office near the 18th hole. He moved to his current Lower Hermosa area home in 1961 and has lived there ever since.

“Most people in La Jolla at that time never wanted to admit that they needed a psychiatrist … but I presented myself in an approachable way, so people felt better speaking to me without the stigma,” Gessay explained. Further, he implemented a system of using both talk therapy and medication, whereas most in the psychiatry field used one or the other.

“I had training in New England that was well ahead of West Coast medicine, particularly in psychiatry,” he said. “If you were in San Diego, they didn’t have people that had extensive training that was personable. They were doing very little out here when I arrived.”

Noting how the field has changed, he added: “Seeking mental health is more accepted today, but people still have the attitude that they are too special to accept something helpful. I wish people wouldn’t be so resistant to things that could help them.”

Often affectionately referred to as “Papa Lou” by family and friends, his sons say Gessay is known for his kindness, gentle nature, wise counsel, positive encouragement and enduring optimism.

But any number of factors could be the secret to his longevity. “He can strike up a conversation with anyone,” son Greg said. “And when he had his office, and a patient couldn’t pay but needed to be seen, he would see them and forgive their debts. Add in the social activities at the Country Club and the church, and I think there is balance there.”

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Smiling at the mention of golf, Gessay opined: “You either love it or you don’t, and you are either good at it or you aren’t. I love it and am good at it.”

At the La Jolla Country Club, he once hit a hole-in-one, the plaque for which still hangs in his home; and he shot his age or better 131 times.

Good genes might not hurt either ... Gessay’s closest sibling died when she was 95.

His second wife Dell shared: “When his sister died, he started saying, ‘I’m going to live past that age,’ and he has. When he sets a goal and really goes after something, it happens!”

Editor’s Note: This La Jolla Light series features interviews with local centenarians. If you know a La Jollan who is 100 years old, please e-mail editor@lajollalight.com or call (858) 875-5950.


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