Man suffering from Parkinson’s disease gets his PhD at age 58

Man suffering from Parkinson’s disease gets his PhD at age 58

Dr Pieter Van Niekerk is a true example that no obstacle can get in the way of those who are determined to succeed.

Pieter van Niekerk
Pieter van Niekerk/ Harmen Brandsma

Dr Van Niekerk knows the pain of seeing one’s health deteriorating and having to deal with the difficulties that come with being disabled.

Pieter, as he prefers to be called, says he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2004 at age 44, and sadly couldn’t work anymore.

Before being diagnosed with the disease, he used to work as a field worker for the South African Council of Churches (SACC), ministering in Alexandra township. He has a passion for working with the less fortunate and helping people in society.

He says Parkinson’s symptoms such as tremors and speech difficulties made him feel vulnerable.

READ: World Parkinson’s day: What you need to know about Parkinson’s disease

“All these experiences started to bring about feelings of uneasiness, embarrassment, and downright incapability,” says Pieter.

Sadly, because he could not work, his finances were affected. Pieter says being diagnosed with the disease resulted in his salary being cut, and only getting his pension money.

Pieter adds that he never thought he would suffer from such a disease and viewed it as an “old age” disease after his dad was diagnosed with it in his 70s.

“I never thought I would become disabled,” he says.

Explaining the pain and frustration of living with the disease, Pieter says that although he has learned to live with Parkinson’s disease, he can’t enjoy the hobbies he used to.

“My condition has taken its course and currently I am physically fragile. I have also fractured a few of the vertebra in my spine, and this has left me with chronic pain and little room for recovery,” he says.

“Most of the time I need assistance to eat, wash, and dress. Brushing my teeth isn’t easy."

Sadly, even his voice is deteriorating, and his speech is slow.

Despite all these challenges, Pieter has managed to get a PhD degree in Theology from the University of Pretoria.

He says receiving his doctorate made him feel “great”.

“I felt proud of myself and wished I could pause the moment forever.

“One should never underestimate the strength of one’s fighting spirit,” Pieter said, adding that one should also never underestimate “the will to pursue realistic goals”.

Unfortunately, people with disabilities are often discriminated in society. This breaks Pieter’s heart, and he says he wishes people understood that no one is perfect, and we all have limitations in one way or another.

“I’ve realised there are different types of disability, some are easier than others to cope with,” says Pieter.

“There is no clear boundary between ability and disability. One can rather speak of a spectrum of functionality along which persons function in terms of their level of vulnerability. All persons are vulnerable, but some are more, and others are less, and in specific ways. Nobody is perfect.

“The conclusion to reach from this is that the human race consists of those who are aware of their disabilities and those who are not."

He says people should accept, love, and not discriminate each other.   

“It is only when we share the pain of love for others, that we give meanings to ourselves. This isn’t easy but it is possible,” he says.

Pieter might be 58 and suffering from a chronic disease, but he is still ambitious. He says he plans to write a book and columns for newspapers.

Image credit: iStock/ Highwaystarz-Photography

Pieter van Niekerk in gown
Pieter van Niekerk with his wife / Harmen Brandsma

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