Salt Lake City family of five ready to board the Africa Mercy for 2 years of service at sea

Published: Monday, June 11 2012 9:00 p.m. MDT

Dr. Sean Runnels has a pre-operative consultation with Donald Wayne Lytle, a Vietnam War veteran, at the George E. Wahlen Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, June 8, 2012. Dr. Runnels, his wife and their three children are leaving for a medical mission in Africa next week.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The cars are sold. The house is rented. The two cats, one rabbit, three chickens and 30,000 bees have new, temporary owners. And the majority of the family's belongings are strategically packed into an 8-by-8 room in their Salt Lake City basement.

"I think a little separation is good for the soul," said Dr. Sean Runnels, a cardiac anesthesiologist at University Hospital. "It really makes you appreciate things when you come back."

But Runnels, his obstetrician wife, Dr. Diane Ellis, and their three children, ages 12, 9 and 6, won't be back for at least two years, as the couple plans to give medical service aboard Africa Mercy, a hospital ship that will port off the coast of West Africa for the next two years.

They'll first serve the country of French Guinea and then head to Congo, where tens of thousands are expected to be waiting at both locations for life-changing medical care.

Runnels said up to 95 percent of the care that's offered on the ship is surgical, involving procedures to treat cleft palates, vesicovaginal fistulas caused by days of agonizing labor, disfiguring benign tumors, debilitating tooth abscesses, "wheelbarrow-sized hernias," and other orthopedic and pediatric health problems.

"These are things that remove people from society, they are shunned for their conditions," he said, calling their needs "endless."

Mercy's all-volunteer team of surgeons, dentists, nurses and other medical professionals donate their time and skills to perform procedures that would otherwise be unavailable to the struggling nations.

More than six million Africans die each year of preventable diseases, and others live with impure water and inadequate food, increasing the continent's sick populations, according to the World Health Organization.

"It's giving something back," said Ellis, who has participated in a couple short-term medical missions to Ghana in the past. "You really don't get to know the culture, you don't feel a part of the society when you just take a year off and travel with the kids, as so many people do. You don't get the feeling that you're living there or making a difference."

And while the Runnels children have experienced life outside of the United States many times on various vacations, their parents are excited for them to witness the kind of life that is created by service.

"It's good for them to see that," Ellis said.

Runnels calls it "payback" for the blessed lives they lead in the states. He lived overseas as a child and "never lost the ability to recognize how incredibly lucky we were to be born where we were and to the parents we were."

Participants live on the ship and agree to follow a code of conduct, which includes a modest dress code and no alcohol or tobacco consumption, except at special events. In the course of one year, the ship spends eight to 10 months offering medical service, a month at the shipyard for maintenance and a month sailing.

The faith-based Mercy Ships charity follows a similar model to the life of Jesus Christ, "bringing hope and healing to the world's forgotten poor," according to the organization's website. It has been sending mission ships to the coasts of developing nations since 1978, and estimates that more than $834 million has been used to provide care to 2.9 million beneficiaries.

"You can't go and not feel moved," said Runnels, who served two weeks aboard the ship while it was at Sierra Leone last spring. He became somewhat addicted to the do-good feeling he had while there.

"It is sometimes hard to recognize the impact of what I do here in the states," Runnels wrote on the family's blog, "Tools in Africa." "What I do here is specialized and I'm sure helps people, but frankly, while I'm gone, the system will not notice the difference. The feedback on the Africa Mercy was immediate and left no doubt."

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