By Alexandra Rockey Fleming
Updated November 25, 2016 09:42 AM

A little short-term adventure. Really, that’s all Susan Parker was seeking in 1987 when she signed up to volunteer with the world’s largest civilian floating hospital, Mercy Ships.

It might be fun, she thought, to extend a helping hand to people in need, experience shipboard life, and visit the Mexican port of Lazaro Cardenes, where Mercy Ships would deliver medical care. Susan had a job to return to in the Los Angeles garment industry — and anyway, “I had no intention of staying on the ship any longer than six months,” she says.

But Susan, a recent university graduate, had underestimated her own devotion to hard work and her commitment to helping others. Her six months quickly stretched into a year and, improbably, that year turned into five. She fell in love with the ship’s maxillofacial surgeon, Gary Parker, and the pair made their newlyweds’ home in one of the tiny married-couple residences. Susan didn’t question when they’d return to the States, because “surely we wouldn’t be here forever,” she says. “We just took it a year at a time and kept going.”

And more than 30 years and two children later, the Parkers continue to live and work full time on one of the hospital ships, Africa Mercy, currently moored in Benin. The couple raised their two kids aboard — no easy feat, as “these are not safe places for children,” says Susan, 55. “Our ship had five huge cargo holds that dropped about seven stories down, so someone had to be with them all the time.”

Nor were the children able to enjoy the opportunities most American students are provided — the sports teams, the special-interest clubs, the musical groups. The onboard nursery and school only has about 50 members from infant to 12th grade — just three graduated last year in Susan’s son’s class — so the options are limited.

Daughter Carys and son Wesley are both off in college now and Susan says their children are grateful for the empathy and compassion that have been built into their characters by being raised aboard the ship.

“Now that I look back, I can see that they didn’t miss out on anything, because there was so much good,” she says. “And neither of them would trade their lives here.”

The Parker family (l to r): Carys, Dr. Parker, Susan, Wesley, in front of Africa Mercy hospital ship in Madagascar
Ruben Plomp

Susan’s first job was as the assistant to the Mercy Ships president, working 12-hour days and returning to her cabin at night. The living conditions alone were a challenge.

“Living aboard ship was like sharing space in a college dorm,” she says: overheated, intense, and often exasperating, and gave rise to feelings of “being trapped in this metal box, of not being free.”

But Susan’s cabin fever paled infinitely next to the suffering of the people lining the dock hoping to come aboard for lifesaving care and surgeries. These were victims of the diseases and conditions of abject poverty, such as enormous facial tumors that grow unchecked from tooth enamel, and obstetric fistula, the result of prolonged obstructed labor. In the daily lives of the ship’s volunteers, trauma mixed with tedium, delight competed with heartbreak. It was captivating — to a point.

By raising their family aboard the ship, Susan and her husband are clearly not the norm. Individuals in the 400-strong global volunteer contingent of staff and crew usually pledged several rotations before returning to families, careers, and lives off-ship.

Since that first job Susan has held various positions on the ships, from hospital administrator to training director. She says it’s impossible to describe a typical day, whether she’s contributing to the medical efforts or helping sustain the small city that is Africa Mercy. The common theme is that it’s hard work. And of course, Susan says, “there have been more times than I care to admit when I’ve felt like quitting and going home, back to the familiar.”

A reboot often comes via a visit to the maxillofacial ward, where her husband works. “I can look at each person suffering in their bed and think, ‘Okay, I can do this for another day,’ ” Susan says. “It’s all perspective.”

As the years have turned into decades, Susan says that one of the most challenging aspects has been to stay the course when life has gotten difficult or frustrating — or just seems unfixable.

“There’s no end to the relentless, crushing need…,” she writes on her blog. “No matter how much we do … it’s always and only just one drop in an ocean of need. And sometimes, I just want to turn away and pretend I didn’t see.”

But she doesn’t turn away.

“It’s in Susan’s heart to help people,” says Martha, a Liberian mother whose daughter, Blessing, has received several lifesaving surgeries aboard the Africa Mercy. “Susan denies herself so much, but her sacrifices have restored joy to my family and my life.”

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