Kwanam, a middle-aged woman from a remote village in the northern part of the African country of Togo, made the long journey to the port city of Lomé where she had heard a hospital ship was offering free surgeries. Among the thousands waiting to be examined, Kwanam sat far from everyone else in a failed attempt to hide the stench of her chronic infected flesh. Tumors the size of softballs hung from her neck and flies swarmed around a rag she used to cover her head. As she removed the cloth, Dr. Gary Parker, saw an infected tumor, almost as large as her head, on the back of her head. It was covered with a plastic bag to try and contain the pus and odor.

Thankfully, the team of medical experts led by Parker, a UCLA-educated oral and maxillofacial surgeon, was able to help Kwanam by removing a nearly 10 pound tumor, and with it, the isolating stench that defined her for so many years.

Parker told that story recently to a packed Royce Hall during his commencement address to the 2014 graduating class from the UCLA School of Dentistry hoping to inspire them to pursue lives of service.

“I believe we reach significance when we define our personal success as adding value to the lives of others,” advised Parker to the newly minted graduates.

It was for his career of selfless dedication helping those with congenital deformities that Chancellor Gene Block presented Parker the UCLA Medal — the university’s highest honor — during the ceremony.

“You have restored the smiles of hundreds of children and adults who had never before seen a dentist, improving their health and imparting hope for a better tomorrow,” said Block as he read the citation Parker received before getting the medal. “In doing so, you selflessly embody UCLA’s mission to serve, and to apply knowledge gained to improve lives wherever you can.”

Following the medal presentation, Parker, who was the 2012 School of Dentistry Alumnus of the Year, delivered his commencement speech.

During his address, the three-time UCLA alumnus recalled his time as a UCLA dental student, as a resident in the hospital dentistry program, followed by the oral and maxillofacial surgery program. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons treat diseases and defects in the head, neck, face, jaws and the hard and soft issues of the mouth and jaw region.

Following nearly 10 years of dental training at UCLA, he went on to gain more surgical experience in the British National Health Service in the North Wales’ oral and maxillofacial surgical unit. When the opportunity to do a six-month volunteer mission with Mercy Ships, a not-for-profit organization that operates a fleet of hospital ships bringing medical and dental services to impoverished countries, came up, Parker decided that it was something he wanted to check out.

Though Parker was drawn to the idea of using his expertise to help improve the lives of the poor, he said that he never imagined that a six-month mission would turn into a 27-year commitment.

“I decided to stay with Mercy Ships because helping the poor is a fundamental part of my faith,” Parker said in an interview following the ceremony. “The need is endless and once I experienced that personally, and the poor took on names and faces, I found it almost impossible to turn away. For me, seeing lives transformed by the surgical skills that I’ve been entrusted with makes good use of the opportunity and resources that it has been my privilege to receive.”

Parker began his tenure with the Mercy Ships as a ship surgeon and over the past two decades has risen to the position of Chief Medical Officer of Africa Mercy, the organization’s largest charity ship. He is credited with starting the organization’s oral and maxillofacial surgery program.

UCLA had a role in his selflessness

When asked what it meant to be able to share his experience with new UCLA dental graduates, Parker said, “UCLA has a long tradition of encouraging students towards public service; it was here that I was first inspired, by then-Dean Jim Hooley, to give back in response to all that I had received. 

“Dean [No-Hee] Park’s leadership continues this legacy,” Parker continued, “and it was deeply meaningful for me to join him in strengthening this great tradition.”

Since 1986, Parker has performed life-changing surgery on hundreds upon hundreds of children and adults in more than 15 countries. Most of his patients suffer from congenital deformities like cleft lip and cleft palate. Other medical procedures he performs include removal of tumors, reconstruction after destructive infections and the repair of burn damages.

“The world is a much, much better place because of the astonishing work he has performed over several decades,” Block said of Parker in remarks prior to awarding him the medal.

The Africa Mercy is equipped with five modern operating rooms with anesthesia and surgical equipment and a CT scanner. Because the crew is working in countries that do not have the easily accessible good health care infrastructure needed for the complex surgeries they are performing, Parker said that they use the Internet to connect with radiologists, pathologists and other specialists’ expertise.

The ship is more than Parker’s home and hospital. In 1987, while aboard the ship, Parker met his wife, Susan. And the couple’s two children have grown up on board. Currently, their daughter, Carys, attends college in the United States and their high school-aged son, Wesley, lives with them on board the Africa Mercy.

“Life aboard the ship is similar to living in a college dorm — while at sea,” Parker said. “We have built a close relationship with a multi-national crew of 400 and the places and cultures we have had the chance to experience is invaluable. For me to be able to do what I’m doing and to share in the lives of my family on a daily basis is fantastic.”

Overall the family sees the life aboard ship as an incredibly enriching lifestyle. However, Parker realizes the sacrifices that Susan and his children have had to make, such as opportunities to pursue areas of personal interests and strengths.

“I am deeply appreciative to my wife especially, for her willingness to live with me and raise a family on board a ship for 27 years and counting,” Parker said.