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Ormond Beach Observer Wednesday, Sep. 5, 2012 9 years ago

To Africa, with love


safari vacation turned into a mission trip for three local doctors, who gave free treatment to 77 indigenous Africans over two days.


It wasn’t supposed to be a mission trip.

For doctors John Long, Jr., (Associated Dermatologists) Jeff Parks (Parks Dermatology Center) and Albert Gillespy (Orthopedic Clinic of Daytona Beach), their summer vacation to Kenya was just another item to cross off of their collective bucket list. But after arriving to a tiny village with their families, the trio got more than they bargained for.

“This kind of evolved out of something bigger,” Parks said. “I’d love to say that we went over there as missionaries, but that just wasn’t the case.”

On the first day of their two-week getaway to East Africa, booked through Flagler County travel agency Gerling Safaris, the doctors met Mark Ross, a tour guide who also ran the Kulunga Village Foundation for area orphans — complete with a medical clinic. They checked it out, settled in. But by their second day, when the doctors returned to the clinic to meet Ross, they found it packed with people.

“The villagers had gotten wind a week or so prior that we were coming,” Parks said. “There were 77 people lined up outside.”

For the next two days, the doctors got to work, using what supplies they had available — even sending a courier off with hundreds of their own dollars to buy supplies that weren’t — to treat rashes and various skin diseases.

They also got to know the local health care system. Even in the bigger cities, they said, it’s not abnormal for two complete strangers to have to share the same hospital bed, lying head to toe, because of space restraints. But in the smaller places, like Kulunga, people are considered lucky to find any doctors at all, maybe just a nurse and a couple shelves of antibiotics.

“There was really no healthcare available to them,” Parks said. “Some of the people we saw had problems for years. Others had acute problems. Others had malaria or other systemic diseases.”

So they prescribed topical creams and steroids. They taught about best practices, for diseases like lupus. They even diagnosed a pregnancy.

According to Gerling, this was the first time this clinic had ever had a non-dental doctor work there — for free or otherwise.

Maybe the trio’s biggest surprise, though, was how their six kids, ages 10 to 20, stepped up to help when they realized they were needed. Throughout their entire time at the clinic, the kids were busy, checking in patients, filling out charts, running for meds.

Daughters Sydney Parks and Julia Long also led schooling lessons with their mothers to about 65 locals. And after everything, they gave away bags of toys as parting gifts.

Even before the clinic work, though, the kids were curious, Long added. They wanted to meet the locals, visit the fishing towns, get a feel for something new.

“It was really cool to see our kids like that, in a real adult way,” Parks said. And Long added that the experience has inspired them to get involved in humanitarian efforts elsewhere, too.

By meeting real residents and getting down into the culture of the region, the doctors’ trip went from getaway to enriching life experience quickly. And that’s how they like it. Even when they vacation to more advanced areas in the world, like Italy, Parks says he always avoids the tourist traps.

He has one rule: He won’t eat anywhere with a laminated menu.

“I’m from a tourist town, I don’t want to go a tourist place,” Long said, adding that whenever he talks to a concierge, he says, “Tell me somewhere you’d go.”

Traveling is nothing new to this trio of doctor friends. They’ve been “best friends forever,” according to Long, and have been to every country in Africa. They’ve been to Japan, China. And next, Parks hopes to visit Scotland or Ireland.

But this particular trip was different. When they boarded their plan for home, they did so knowing that they had helped out, even just a little bit. They tried to make a difference. They had seen the real Africa — and that’s exactly the point of a safari, to get up close and catch even just a glimpse of something wild.

“And it’s unbelievable how close we got.” Parks said.

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