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Driven by helping others

Thursday December 25, 2008

Mydesert.com - At 87, Dr. Richard Parkinson would rather devote his days to providing free medical care to those who can't afford it than retire

Inside a cozy examination room, in an area many consider the tough part of town, Dr. Richard Parkinson slowly pulls on his crisp white medical coat and places his stethoscope around his neck.

The tall and slender 87-year-old is ready for whoever walks through the door of his modest clinic.

Most of the time it's “hookers and felons,” said Parkinson. Other times it's homeless families who have no insurance and nowhere to go but the Indio Free Medical Clinic.

For five decades, he's been a vital, but quiet figure in the daily flow of life of Indio. His clinic work is the latest chapter in Parkinson's storybook life. It's a tale that includes climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, meeting Mother Teresa and competing in Ironman triathlons, which consist of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride and a marathon of 26.2 miles.

“Like the Army, be all you can be. I did nine Ironmans. To me it was important. It added to my self-esteem, my mystique. A guy who gets to the top of Kilimanjaro is somebody,” he said.

“I get the same feeling here (at the clinic). It makes you feel good.”

Parkinson's legacy runs deep. If people don't know “Parky” personally, chances are they've heard of him. He's delivered more than 500 babies in Indio and has seen an estimated 67,000 patients during his 40 years of private practice.

He's akin to a neighborhood Mother Teresa, providing comfort and care to the underbelly of the Coachella Valley.

“He certainly had modeled himself in his later years after Mother Teresa. There is a fair comparison ,” said Dr. Frank Curry, medical director of Emergency Services at John F. Kennedy Memorial Hospital in Indio. He's known Parkinson for at least 25 years.

The Indio Free Medical Clinic sits at the far end of the One Stop mini plaza that houses a pawn shop, taco shop, convenience store and gas station.

Haki Dervishi, a friend and former patient of Parkinson, owns the building and provides the clinic space free of charge. It used to be storage for his pawn shop.

It's is a short jaunt from the city's two homeless shelters and labor camp.

“This gives me purpose in life,” Dervishi said of playing a part in providing health care for the poor and destitute of the Coachella Valley.

On a recent afternoon it was George Preston, a resident of the Coachella Valley Rescue Mission, who showed up at the clinic's front door with a swollen right hand. His fingers looked like sausages ready to burst.

He feared his hand might be broken.

After a swift examination, Parkinson assured him it wasn't, suggested taking some anti-inflammatory medication and Preston was on his way.

“Many of the people just need someone to listen to them,” said Parkinson.

When he's not doling out medical advice, he's placing a comforting hand on a shoulder, reassuring the worried and just listening.

Parkinson is not as quick as he used to be. His feet no longer glide, but shuffle.

And he often grabs for the nearest arm or shelf when getting around to keep his balance.

His drive and desire to serve people, though, hasn't changed a bit.

Anna Marie Guzman's severe arthritis is what landed her at Parkinson's office recently. It's so bad she's forced to walk with a cane.

“I haven't been able to see a doctor because I don't have insurance,” she said. “The payments of just seeing a doctor can add up.”

Parkinson gave her some ibuprofen to ease the pain and talked to her about swimming and exercise to alleviate stress on the joints.

Parkinson has continued to treat patients well into his 80s — an age when others seek the solace of home and ease of golf courses — because retirement isn't in his vocabulary.

“Retiring never really appealed to me,” he said. “I dread that like the plague.”

He admits there's comfort in wearing his white coat. It's an ego boost. It makes him feel important.

When he walks into homeless shelters and dark dank bars wearing his bright white doctor's smock to pass out fliers promoting his free clinic, people take notice.

“I don't want to sit in a rocking chair and be nobody,” he said.

That's why he gives out his cell phone number and lets patients call him at home. If important enough, he'll agree to meet them at the clinic as soon as possible.

The doctor wonders who would provide care and comfort to the area's poor and homeless, prostitutes and addicts if he didn't.

Helping generations
It was 1958 when Parkinson, who grew up a farm boy from Idaho, moved to Indio with his wife and two sons.

He quickly opened a private practice and has called Indio home ever since.

“He was a quintessential doctor. I made house calls with my dad,” said his son, 59-year-old Jim Parkinson, an attorney who lives in Bermuda Dunes.

Many of Parkinson's clients were babies he's delivered or are the children or grandchildren of former patients.

He delivered Angelica Larrañaga, 33, and her sister.

Larrañaga's asthma was acting up so she visited Parkinson on a recent afternoon for advice.

“I remember when I was a little girl being fascinated by Parkinson,” she said. “He inspires us to help others and look at life differently.”

Indio Mayor Pro Tem Gene Gilbert, a former officer with the Indio Police Department, has his fair share of “Parky” memories as well.

He remembers pulling over a jogging Parkinson with his police vehicle to seek medical advice for an earache.

Parkinson told him to promptly meet him at his office so he could take a look.

“That's just the kind of guy he is. He just wants to help humanity and do the right thing. That's rare,” said Gilbert.

Since Parkinson doesn't consider retirement an option, he has found ways to keep busy since ending his private practice.

He operated clinics in prisons and homeless shelters before setting up shop at One Stop, at the corner of Indio Boulevard and Van Buren Street, about five years ago.

His clinic is quite small, just four small rooms — two of which are used as waiting areas. There's also an examination room and a storage area with a bathroom.

His clinic has no back door, nowhere to run if trouble knocks on his door, which, given the neighborhood, worries Parkinson on occasion.

“If you ask me, I'm scared. I'm scared daily,” he said.

Despite the trepidation, he shows up to work.

“Tell me your troubles and I'll try to help you,” Parkinson tells his patients.

Passing it down
His philanthropy has been passed on to his grown children.

Jim and his brother Brett Parkinson, a radiologist living in Utah, have delivered mammogram machines to Tanzania to help African women there avoid breast cancer.

“My dad kind of set that standard,” said Jim Parkinson. “He's not a man that is driven by acquisition as much as he is for helping — just helping people.”

Parkinson provides as much care as he can for a man his age.

He knows his limits.

He's no longer the spry young guy with a steady hand who first moved to the desert or even the late-50-year-old who set two records for the senior decathlon.

If a patient needs special care that he can no longer provide, he refers them elsewhere.

Parkinson said he'll continue to work as long as he physically and mentally can. When he dies, he hopes it's on his way to the clinic.

“I don't want to die in a retirement home,” he said. “I'd rather keep doing what I'm doing.”