About to Set Sail: Meet Dr. Gary Parker
One week from today, we board Mercy Ships! Before we take off, meet Africa Mercy’s Chief Medical Officer & Maxillofacial Surgeon, Dr. Gary Parker. His desire to serve reflects a secret too few know: Volunteering for Mercy Ships will not only change the lives of those you serve, it will change you.
How did you get involved with Mercy Ships?
Dr. Parker: It became increasingly clear to me that there were no lack of surgeons to care for the needs of people in Western nations and that my surgical skills could dramatically change the quality of life for people who have no access to surgical intervention. So when I first heard about using a ship to provide specialty surgeries in countries where they were unavailable or unaffordable, it struck a chord in me. At this time the ship was still in the process of being refitted and Mercy Ships had not yet launched their first field service but they invited me to join a small surgical team that was to work in Mexico in the local hospital in advance of the ship’s arrival. In 1986, I made the decision to volunteer for three months with Mercy Ships to see if it was a good fit and those three months turned into 26 years and counting.
What did you hope to accomplish when you first joined Mercy Ships for what you thought would be only three months?
Dr. Parker: I had a strong sense that I had been entrusted with skills that I could use either to make a lot of money or to help those who have no other options because of systemic poverty. My growing conviction was that I was meant to do the latter. But until one grounds those thoughts in real experiences, it’s hard to answer the question of life-long commitment or accomplishments. After those initial three months of volunteer work with Mercy Ships, I saw clearly that although I was working within a narrow surgical specialty, there was enormous opportunity for my specialty in places lacking an intact health care infrastructure. My hope was simply to make a difference, one person at a time.
Looking back at where you were when you started this journey, where has it taken you?
Dr. Parker: Over the years I’ve discovered better and better ways of doing surgery in the developing world as well as solving some of the surgical challenges presented to us by deformities, or neglected health care. By connecting with my African surgical colleagues, both learning from them and teaching them, I was opening up a large window of opportunity that was going to be a good way to use my life’s energies for something that really counted.
What kept you involved after that initial time and what keeps you here now?
Dr. Parker: I could tell you about Harding from Sierra Leone who was spared suffocation by a tumor that had been growing on his jaw for the past ten years, or about Blessing from Liberia who can go to school now that her lips, which were destroyed by the flesh eating disease noma, have been rebuilt, or Marius, from the Ivory Coast, whose nose was bitten off by a gorilla, but he now has a new nose, or baby Samuel whose cleft lip and palate have been repaired and so he will be spared the cruel taunts of school children. For me, the poor have faces. Those huge numbers that are quoted by WHO and others take on a very personal meaning because those numbers are individuals I know – I’ve spent hours over an operating table to bring them to a quality of life that they deserve as a human being, so they are “real” to me, not just numbers.
I really can’t imagine myself doing anything else.