Gary Parker D.D.S. ’77 earned a B.S. at UC Davis before spending nine years at UCLA, where he earned a doctorate in dentistry with a specialization in oral and maxillofacial surgery. He went on to take postdoctoral training in hospital dentistry. But it might have been what he did off campus that would change so many lives — including his own.
On weekends, Parker worked in the university’s mobile dental clinic, providing critical care to farm workers in California’s San Joaquin Valley. “I saw firsthand that there are people who can’t access health care,” he remembers. “Poverty took on names and faces. I began to think about working in remote places.”
Five years after graduation, he was living and working aboard a Mercy Ship — one of a fleet of nonprofit, humanitarian floating hospitals serving the neediest of the world — off the coast of West Africa. There and in other locales, he continues to perform life-changing surgeries that are common in the U.S. but are largely out of reach in poor countries. More than 35 years later, Parker is still circumnavigating the globe by sea, bringing hope to people who need it most.
How did you get from UCLA to West Africa?
As a student, I talked with Jim Hooley, then dean of the UCLA School of Dentistry, about working in remote places. He had spent time in North Wales and knew two oral and maxillofacial surgeons there. He said, “You could pick up new techniques from them. You should spend some time there.” So I went, intending to stay three to six months. It turned into almost five years. While I was there, I heard about Mercy Ships and their vision of bringing specialty care to areas plagued by poverty. I signed on to volunteer for three months.
Three months turned into more than three decades. Why not just open a practice in a place that needed better medical care?
I thought the concept of taking surgical services to people who had no other way to get treatment was brilliant. But I didn’t know if I was cut out for that life. I didn’t know if I could deal with the frustrations in a low-income country that’s not as developed as it needs to be. I figured the only way to find out was to give it a try.
What did you find?
I would walk into a room and see 30 or 40 people — 7, 8, 14, 20, 30 years old — with completely wide-open cleft palates or massive facial tumors. The tumors hung from their jaws and might weigh as much as four kilograms, as big as a Texas watermelon. The tumors could eventually push the tongue back into the throat and the people would suffocate, which is the most terrifying way to die. In the Western world, the tumors would have been removed while small. In Africa, they reach enormous proportions.
That sounds shocking to see. Did you think maybe it was more than you wanted to take on?
It was so clear that we could change their lives. They had been shunned and ridiculed since birth because of the lack of a basic surgical procedure that is easily available in high-income countries. They were humans just like you and me, with dreams and hopes, but their opportunities had been so limited. Yet there were ways to allow them a place at the table. I wanted to do that.
At some point, you decided this would be your life. How?
During those first three months, I met some amazing families that had persevered with malformed children. They were suffering, and we had answers for them. I knew that the few tools I had I could easily use in the U.S., but in other parts of the world, they are extraordinary. My conviction just became stronger and stronger.
How do you measure the difference you’ve made?
Now we see fewer really big tumors, because we get to them when they’re small. And we’ve been training African surgeons all these years to help with the capacity. We get word from patients’ families about how the surgery changed their lives. When you meet people at their point of need, you make hope tangible in the present. When you say to a poor family, “Tomorrow’s going to be better,” what in their life experience would make them believe that? But when their child gets their cleft sewn up, little seeds of hope are planted. Then they can make the stretch to say, “Maybe we can get our water system going in our village or get the school started.”
Are your patients ever afraid of you at first? I mean, you’re a stranger in scrubs on a huge boat.
The people who come to me are so scary looking to other people that what they’re thinking is “Will you accept me, or reject me like everyone else does?” They usually have their faces covered with a cloth. If they take it down, they expose themselves to terrible risk of ridicule, which has been their lived experience. When they see me, they’re full of hope, but also trying to steady themselves for yet one more “Go away.”
That’s heartbreaking. How do you reassure them, let them know you’re on their side, when you may not speak their language beyond “Hello”?
If someone with a massive tumor still has one good eye, I look in that eye, make contact, and let them know that I see them. That acceptance is, to me, the beginning of the healing. They need to know that they have value to me, and that they’re no less than someone else just because they have the tumor and happen to be poor.
Do you sometimes have to brace yourself when they drop the cloth in order to not show your own surprise and shock?
At the beginning, seeing these things was just astounding. And you think, Where do I start? You just don’t see this advanced pathology in the Western world, where you don’t have to be 40 years old before someone touches your cleft lip. But over time, I learned more what to expect.
Tell me about some specific cases where the surgery was a great success.
I think of a boy in Central Africa born with a cleft palate. His father brought him to me when he was 7 years old. It was an eight-hour journey, on foot, to reach the ship from his village. School was not an option for him because the teasing was so severe. We did the surgery, and some friends of mine drove him home. His mom had never seen him looking like another child. His village had a huge celebration, with people jumping and shouting, all over the results of this little operation. His uncle picked him up and looked at him and said, “How is this possible?” What is ordinary elsewhere is extraordinary there.
Another was a young woman brought by her brother, with a scarf over her face. Her brother said, “We were hoping you could give her a marriageable nose.” They pulled back the scarf, and she had had noma, a bacterial infection that affects small children in sub-Saharan Africa. It had destroyed all the flesh of her nose. There was nothing there but a hole looking into the sinuses. The brother said, “My family can’t arrange a marriage for her like this.” We made her a nose from flesh from another place on her body, and it worked well. A couple of months later, I got a message from the brother, saying she was married and her family had had a big celebration.
Do you ever think that you could be practicing in Beverly Hills, getting rich, owning a condo in Hawaii?
My family and I live in an uncertain environment, but our needs are met. And I’ve gone through a deliberate process of deciding how much is enough. I try to live in the present, because worrying about the future steals the joy of the day.
That’s an admirable goal.
The more I meet people who live with a lot less than we do, and the more I understand what it means to be a world citizen, it’s not as hard as it may seem to step away from generating huge amounts of money and doing exotic things. My reward is seeing people get better who weren’t going to get better without us. The extravagance of material things doesn’t touch the heart in the same way as connecting with another human being — with seeing them feel part of the human race for the very first time.
Read more from UCLA Magazine’s Spring 2023 issue.