Tribute to a man who has inspired me through the years
A fateful meeting
I was up to my elbows in mud, dressed in a tattered pair of shorts and hot and sweaty from working in the garden when a couple, the woman cool and elegant, the man bearded and long-haired, arrived at the garden gate looking for me.
“We've come to offer you the position of administrator at the Centre for Continuing Medical Education.” I had been interviewed by the couple a few days earlier.
The elegant woman was Ms Esjé Cox and the man was Dr Peter Cusins, and they were both directors of the Centre for Continuing Medical Education at the Medical School of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa.
This was the start of a relationship that was most growthful and inspiring for me – a relationship that lasted from that day in 1980 until Peter's sad death from cancer in 2003. I still miss Pete so much.
To give a little background to the person, Pete was born as one of twins on 15 May 1936 in Pretoria, South Africa. His twin sister died very young and her death left a lasting mark on Pete's psyche, though he did not mention it often.
Pete did extremely well at school and was accepted as a student at the Medical School of the University of the Witwatersrand where he also excelled and received many awards.
After graduating he was enrolled as a registrar in paediatrics at a hospital in Newcastle-on-Tyne in the United Kingdom.
On his return to South Africa he went into family practise in which he also excelled, but he was a restless person and always searching for something more.
He set up a group of healers including South African “traditional healers”, homoeopaths, nurses, physiotherapists and others. He told me that what caused this group not to work in the end was that they were unable to come to a common definition of what “health” meant. But it was a pioneering attempt which led him to want to explore more deeply the two things which perhaps were the defining themes of his life – experiential learning and holism.
In pursuit of the former he went to the Adult Education school at the University of Manchester where he studied group work in the context of adult education spending about 600 hours in intensive experiential learning.
Out of this passion for learning came his decision to work in the context of the division of Continuing Medical Education at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits). Here he put into practice his ideas about experiential learning in the context of medical education. He ran courses for doctors on management in the context of private practice, on the value of doctor-patient relationships and how to use the relationship itself as a method of healing.
Being sick is a choice
“Being sick is a choice,” Pete often used to say. And therefore to heal a person was not a mechanistic process of prescribing certain medications, but a mutual exploration of why the person made the choice to be sick, and medications could support that exploration. The result of the exploration could be that the person might see the possibility of making a different choice – the choice to be well. In the process also the person might be helped to understand what “wellness” might mean to them.
For him the healing process was a process of experiential learning – for both the doctor and the patient – and the roles of both were interchangeable – the patient could heal the doctor as much as the doctor could heal the patient.
Pete's restless, exploring spirit also led him into the field of management as head of training in various businesses. Here his unconventional approach to adult learning brought him much criticism from those who wanted quick and easy solutions to problems of productivity. Pete, who always put the person above profit or any other motives, would not be an agent of manipulation.
But for many people who experienced his utterly honest and forthright ways in the training situation he made an indelible mark and he won their undying respect.
Pete, always a wonderful raconteur, used to tell of a doctor attending one of Pete's courses who resisted the concept of experiential learning, deriding it as nonsense, and many years after the course admitting that he had learned and remembered more from that course than from any other he had taken.
The born raconteur
Which brings me to one of Pete's most endearing and enjoyable characteristics – he was a born raconteur with a keen eye for the funny and the tragic in life's play book. He could turn any experience into a story, poignant or funny, uplifting or sad.
For example one of the stories he loved to tell was of an incident he had observed while working as a mine doctor on one of the gold mines on the Witwatersrand. To give the story some context for non-South Africans unfamiliar with the mining culture I must explain a few things. A “coco-pan” is the wagon which runs on rails deep under the earth's surface carrying rock to the hoists which take the rock to the surface where it is piled in the mine dumps which are such a feature of the landscape around Johannesburg. These coco-pans have no brakes and are stopped by shoving a leaf from a car's leaf spring into the spokes of one of the wheels.
Now this action was known in the vernacular as “faka spring” - put in a spring, i.e. the leaf of a spring.
Well, one day Pete was outside the commissary store on the mine and two old miners were sitting on the verandah smoking their pipes when the young son of one of the mine managers came down the rather steep hill on his bike, screaming with fear as he had lost control of the bike and the brakes were not working.
The two old guys look at this and one another, and one says to the other, “Faka spring?”
So the old chap waits until the boy on his bike are right there and pokes his stick into the spokes of the front wheel of the bike – the outcome is obvious!
But Pete did more listening than talking - indeed he listened with an intensity and understanding that I have not experienced since. He epitomised the saying that since we have two ears and one mouth our listening and talking should be in about the same ratio.
Some very special memories of Pete
Here are some very special memories I have of Pete, my friend, mentor and inspiration.
In 1993 we spent some time together, Pete, Esje and my former wife Joan, on the Algarve in the south of Portugal. It was a marvellous time and I learned a lot during the week or so we were there.
It was also a time of some personal pain which I will not detail here as that is another story.
We went to a fish market one day and happily brought back to the holiday flat where we were staying a beautiful box of langoustines, thinking we were about to savour some of the local delights, only to find, on our arrival at the flat, that the box was stamped with the legend, "Product of Taiwan."
We had a wonderful cook up of the Taiwanese langoustines anyway. It made the evening into a real party for the four of us. We did laugh at our naivete, though.
In 1996 the four of us went on a trip to the Okovango Swamps in Botswana which was one of the richest experiences of my life.
Walking in the open veld among the wild animals with two unarmed guides was an utterly wonderful thing to do. As Pete remarked, "We are in their home [the wild animal's] now and should treat them with respect." There was no moment in the veld that was problematic.
What did cause us some concern was on one of the waterways while we were in the dugout canoes called "makoro" we were for a while trapped between a rogue elephant in front of us and a huge - and I mean HUGE! - crocodile behind us. The makoros have a free board of inches and so one feels very, very vulnerable in them. Indeed the day before we arrived at our camp a woman in a makoro had been killed by a hippo.
At one point, before the above incident, the makoro Pete and Esje had been in got stuck on a sandbank and Esje jumped out and into the water to push it off, only to see a croc within a few metres - she got back in very, very quickly!
We spent one night out in the bush sleeping in little round tents. On waking in the morning we found elephant tracks all between the tents of our little camp.
There is much more I could tell of Pete and how much he meant to me - maybe this is not the place for that.
Just to end off by saying he was a very special human being whose passing has left an enormous hole in my life - but whose life filled mine with so much that was wonderful and growthful.
I guess I am at the age now when so many of those who have been close to me will be departing this life. Pete was one whom I will not forget - he brought so much light and life wherever he went.
I hope this Hub is not too self-indulgent!
The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.
© Tony McGregor 2012