At 96, John Callaghan is believed to be the oldest practicing doctor in South Africa, and he has no plans to retire.
He could have retired years ago, but somehow Dr. John Callaghan never got around to it, he was too busy, and his patients needed him.
Besides, he loves his work so much he can’t imagine doing anything else. Decades have come and gone, and although he’s now hit the grand old age of 96, the Pretoria ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon has no plans to hang up his stethoscope.
He’s believed to be the country’s oldest practicing doctor and even after 70 years on the job every day still brings an opportunity to make a difference, he says.
“I’ve never regretted going into medicine,” John says. “I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. Medicine is a holy science. People come to you with all their miseries and pain, and it’s your duty to listen to the patient and relieve their discomfort.”
His workday starts at 6am and ends around 3pm and often during the day he’ll have other ENT surgeons coming to pick his brain.
When they’re stumped, they send him their most complicated cases.
The innovations he’s seen in medicine, especially when it comes to imaging, continue to surprise him. Technology, he says, hasn’t made for better doctors, rather its enabled them to make more accurate diagnoses, so they’re better equipped to treat patients.
“You can do blood work, cultures and all sorts of other tests that we didn’t have before,” John says.
Yet, despite technological advances, John says the basics haven’t changed.
For him medicine is all about having the ability to change lives.
“I enjoy peoples company and doing what I need to do. I feel good when they are better. To me, that’s the reward.”
John grew up on a farm in Zeerust, close to the Botswana border. From a young age he knew he didn’t want to be a farmer like his father and since he did well at school and was interested in science, medicine seemed like a good choice.
After getting his medical degree from Wits University in 1949 at age 23, he went to work at Elim Hospital in Limpopo as an intern for a year before moving to Groot Marico where he served as a general practitioner and district surgeon.
Practicing medicine in the countryside is different.
“I’d drive 160 km (524960.00 feets) to see patients, armed with just my medical knowledge. The patients I could treat on site, I treated, those I couldn’t, I drove back with to the hospital, and worked for another six or seven hours,” he recalls.
There was limited electricity, so he sometimes had to work by the light of paraffin lamps.
“I did a lot of midwifery, and I was often on my knees in the rondavels delivering babies. There were no telephones then. It was just me, the patient and the husband.”
He later studied further at the University of Pretoria. His decision to specialize as an ENT, which was in its infancy in South Africa, was influenced by the fact that it would allow him to do a lot of microscopic work, which he enjoyed.
He’s had his own practice ever since and his wife, Johanna-Maria, who was a nursing sister, supported him all the way.
John says in those early years he worked day and night and she and their three kids had to put up with him getting home at 3am.
“I was young then,” he says. “It didn’t affect me too much. Sometimes I would pack my children into the car with me, so I could talk to them and bring them back home in the early hours of the morning.”
His own life hasn’t been free of tragedy. His daughter, Est, died at the age of four in a car crash and his son, Ian Phillip (42), passed away in 2003.
John also lost Johanna-Maria nine years ago. She was bedridden for three years and couldn’t even talk.
“I attended to her day and night. I turned her in bed, washed her and removed the fluid from her lungs. Since then, my body clock got stuck into that routine, and I sleep for an hour or so before waking up.”
John doesn’t see himself quitting the job he loves. As he’s based at a private hospital and has his own practice, nobody can force him to retire. As long as he’s medically fit and renews his practice license with the Health Professions Council of South Africa each year, he can work for as long as he chooses.
He doesn’t like the word retirement instead he’s looking forward to slowing down. And he’s not interested in having hospitals or surgical procedures named after him in recognition of his long career.
For him, the work itself is enough of a reward. Whatever work you do, you must enjoy it. It must not be a stressful thing for you to wake up in the morning and go to work.
He keeps fit by walking up and down the stairs at Mediclinic Medforum in Pretoria.
“I’m also a farm boy. I’ve got simple tastes and I eat simple food. I dont smoke, I’ll have a glass of wine or whiskey occasionally, but that’s it.”
When not working, he enjoys reading and spending time with his son, John (70).
“He would have been a good doctor, but none of my children followed me into medicine,” he says.
John is relieved his family don’t put any pressure on him to retire. People are always amazed he’s still working at his age, he says, but nobody has outright criticized him.
Its amazing the things he’s found in peoples ears over the years from ticks to metal balls and tips of earbuds.
“I’ve pulled very interesting things out of peoples ears,” he says, adding that his patients are a constant source of amusement. “I dont laugh at them, we laugh together.”
When Motshedisi Motloi came to Dr. John Callaghan’s office in 2018 she had a tracheostomy tube and couldn’t speak or smell. So hopeless was her case that when Dr. Callaghan presented it to other doctors at an international conference in Cape Town, all the other ENT specialists said nothing could be done to help her.
“I could not accept that,” he says. Through a series of nine surgeries, he managed to rebuild her larynx and helped restore her ability to breathe on her own as well as speak and smell.
“He gave me my voice back. I can talk to my husband and kids, even over the phone. I can smell cake again,” Motshedisi says.
Ingrid Brayshaw says Dr. Callaghan didn’t just treat her, but also gave her the gift of music.
She first met him when she was six years old and had a chronic case of cholesteatoma (an abnormal collection of skin cells deep inside your ear which can affect hearing).
Over seven years, he created new eardrums for her and made little bones inside her ear, so she could hear.
Her most recent operation with him was last year when her hearing was once more deteriorating.
“I work as a music teacher and its because of Dr. Callaghan that I can do that. He changed my life. The personal connection he has with his patients is what sets him apart from other doctors. He even attended my wedding,” Ingrid says. “I work as a music teach and because of him, I can do that.”
Produced in association with Magazine Features ZA
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