Psychiatrist John Parker is at the frontline of treating methamphetamine-related psychosis and a multitude of social problems on the Cape Flats
It is 7am, still dark on Baden Powell Drive, a beachfront road that connects the suburb of Muizenberg to the Cape Flats. A white VW Citi Golf with only one headlight, its hazard lights flashing, negotiates the dawn traffic. The sole occupant of the car, psychiatrist John Parker (48), is on his way to meet Kurt Meavers, a mechanic in Strandfontein. The Citi Golf is in need of repair. John is clean-shaven, wears glasses and has a small silver earring in his left ear. He has been up since five. Each morning begins with a meditation routine, either inside his Noordhoek home or outside in his daughters’ Wendy house during the hot summer months. The early morning quiet is important to John, who devotes time to cultivating mindfulness, the ability to be in the moment and pay attention in a purposeful and non-judgmental way. The fruits of this practice are recognisable: the doctor holds the space around him when he speaks in his metered and thoughtful manner.
John pulls up outside the mechanic’s house. Meavers, an affable man with neatly trimmed beard, comes out and greets John with a handshake and a hug. They met two years ago when Meavers saw John standing by the side of the road next to his car—it had broken down—and have become close friends. Meavers says he has learned a lot from John during their conversations whenever he has driven the psychiatrist to nearby Lentegeur Hospital, a specialist psychiatric facility in Mitchells Plain, where John has worked since late 2003. The hospital was established in 1987.
“He’s too calm, man,” Meavers tells me. He wears a T-shirt with “My God is an Awesome God” written on it. “It rubs off on me because I can see it. Before I say a thing, I look at it first, take ten or 15 seconds, and then say it—then it will come out right. That’s what I learned from him.”
Others who know John reiterate this sentiment: John is mindful, easy to relate to. And his thoughtful demeanour, as well as the strong sense of self-belief he projects, helps the psychiatrist navigate the broad range of human emotion and experience he encounters in his work. It has also served him well in confrontational encounters with psychotic patients. Like the time he talked a burly patient out of hitting him with a chair, or when he got a knife-wielding patient to hand over his weapon—both events took place early in his career, when he was based at Fort England Psychiatric Hospital in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape.
“It’s something I’ve discovered in myself,” says John. “I can engage with someone who’s completely psychotic.” For instance, someone who is hearing voices and screaming. “I can go in there, and I’ve done it a lot of times, where no one else will go near the person, and I can walk in there and make peace,” he says. “It’s about learning to speak to the human deep inside there—learning to let your human being engage with that human being at a very deep level.”
John Parker is a straight-talker.
He populates his conversations with anecdotes, tales of his travels to different parts of the world by land and sea, observations on the intricacies of human connection, and experiences as a doctor before becoming a psychiatrist. Between graduating from medical school at the University of the Witwatersrand in 1990 and starting work in psychiatry at Fort England in 1995, John did stints as an intern and later a medical officer at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital outside East London. He also worked in the trauma unit in Cape Town’s Victoria Hospital.
I can engage with someone who’s completely psychotic. I can go in there … I can walk in there and make peace
“I loved being a doctor. I wanted to be a ‘real doctor’ for a while,” he says of his career before psychiatry. “The problem with it is it kills you emotionally. There’s this paradox because you’ve got to care for people but no one teaches you how to be there emotionally and, yet, not get destroyed by that. You’re too close, emotionally, to people dying all the time. It does mess you up.”
With psychiatry, John wanted to go beyond saving lives and work with people who have been othered in some way: he wanted to help them find meaning in their lives. Despite dealing with the darker aspects of human experience on a daily basis, John is clear that his role as a psychiatrist in a government hospital serving poor communities on Cape Town’s periphery is not altruism. “If you do things only for other people, self-sacrifice, it’s the surest road to bitterness and burnout,” he says. “You need to do it for yourself, but it’s a conception of the self that is well beyond Western individualism. It’s closer to sort of ubuntu stuff: I do it for myself in the knowledge that what I give to other people is the most rewarding thing I can do.”
John has a casual, approachable air about him and typically wears open-neck shirts paired with a dark jacket when he is at work. Work is a collection of face-brick units with red roofs behind an electrified fence, which John says is there to keep thieves out, not patients in. Three times a week, behind a closed door in the outpatients department, John consults patients with severe mental illnesses, including borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Patients tell of hearing voices in their head; some of them slash and burn themselves. He has had patients kill themselves. A few feet away from his office door, a woman in a white coat dispenses medication from the counter of the hospital’s pharmacy. Patients push brown envelopes, containing their details and scripts, into a slot labelled “folders”, wait, and then leave with up to a month’s worth of medication.
Brendon Bosworth is a journalist and editor of UrbanAfrica.net