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Saving Faces

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By Sandra Shagat

Published Oct 1, 2006 12:00 AM


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A crowd gathers on the dock on screening day.


Edoh was small and looked younger than her nine years. A huge growth swelled the left side of her face, pushing through bone, dragging one of her eyes off center. Then the Mercy Ship Anastasis dropped anchor at Togo. The relentless tumor was removed on the floating hospital, where Edoh was given a new nose, mouth and eye socket.

And then there was the baby boy in Liberia with a rare facial deformity who was nonetheless named Blessing by his mother. He, too, was operated on aboard the Anastasis.

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Gary Parker befriends a potential patient
aboard the West African Mercy Ship Anastasis.

In Sierra Leone, Patrick suffered with a growing tumor local doctors said would kill him in five years. But several surgeries aboard the Anastasis gave Patrick life — and now he is a father of three and a pastor at a church in Freetown.

For a quarter of a century, the Mercy Ship Anastasis (Greek for "resurrection") has sailed the West Coast of Africa, bringing hope to those who have none. And for 20 of those years, the ship's chief medical officer, Gary Parker D.D.S. '77, has been treating the facial tumors and deformities of the forgotten poor, including Edoh, Blessing, Patrick and thousands of others.

The Anastasis helps some of the most marginalized people in the world — the diseased, deformed and scarred individuals who often are outcast from African village societies. Some of them can barely breathe or eat, dying from suffocation and malnutrition as their deformities block their airways. Many live alone, hiding their faces behind scarves. They all stand in long lines in the hot sun for a chance to be evaluated by the Anastasis medical team and, hopefully, deemed eligible for surgery.

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The Anastasis docks in the port of Monrovia, Liberia.


Life at Sea

Learn more about the lifesaving work of Mercy Ships at www.mercyships.org. Enter "Gary Parker" in the Search field and read about the good doctor's work in detail.

It's hardly the typical career path for a West Los Angeles specialist in oral and maxillofacial surgery — training that nearly guarantees a life of material comforts. But Gary Parker isn't that kind of doctor. He hooked up with global charity Mercy Ships in 1987 because he sees medicine as a means to address deeper human issues — social, spiritual and economic.

"Some thought I was quite mad," the good doctor acknowledges with a grin about that decision. Not his family, though — Parker met his wife of 14 years, Susan, aboard the Anastasis, where she was a community educator. Their kids, Carys and Wesley, ages 11 and 8, respectively, also live on the 522-foot ship along with 50 other children representing 35 nationalities.

Parker cannot help every patient. Not every tumor is operable, or benign. A cleft lip and palate is not always the patient's only problem. "It's getting harder. I weep," he says. "But I work to improve the quality of life because that person matters."

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