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Laura Seitz, Deseret News
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.
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. —Dr. Diane Ellis

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."

Knowing that they'll be helping entire populations is "professionally and personally very rewarding," he said. Also rewarding is seeing his children gain exposure to the world.

Abigail Runnels, 12, said she'll miss her pets and friends the most, but she's looking forward to "seeing the different environments, the culture and meeting new people."

Abigail has been to Africa twice with her mother and said she enjoyed it immensely. She's actually an experienced world-traveler, having visited nearly every continent.

"This will be different than Ghana," she said. "Ghana's not as poor as the place we are going."

The ship has satellite communication abilities, allowing those on-board to email and call home whenever they like, which Abigail said she'll take advantage of, to keep in contact with her friends.

"I think we caught her at just the right time, one more year and she might have been less excited," Runnels wrote online about his preteen. "Her drift away from us as the center of her life to her friends has begun in earnest — noticeable, but not painful yet. I'll be happy to have her out of the American teen culture for a few years. Elise, 9, and Rhys, 6, have no angst and are full-on engaged in the adventure. For them, it's nothing less than running away to Africa and living on a pirate ship, no worries at all. I envy their innocence."

A variety of amenities are available on-board, including a small pool to cool off from the equatorial climate, an accredited educational academy for schoolchildren, a gym, library, hair salon, laundry facilities, as well as a Starbucks that serves lattes for a mere 25 cents. Runnels said having various comforts, as well as security provided, allows for more attention to be paid to the service being given.

Meals are provided, however, families can cook for themselves in available spaces and the commute to work is just down the hallway. When not working, participants are encouraged to venture off the ship and take part in other humanitarian efforts on land, as well as sight-see and explore what the area has to offer.

Staff are asked to pay per-person crew fees each month, as well as an extra cost for kids to attend school. Runnels and Ellis, who up until recently worked at the local Community Health Center, have been working overtime and gone without vacations for the last year-and-a-half, leading up to the upcoming two-year excursion.

Extended family has also provided financial help for the trip, which begins in mid-August, when the family will board Africa Mercy in the Canary Islands.

"For the experience we will get for our children and the personal growth for ourselves and the professional rejuvenation we will get, I think it is a cheap price for service," Runnels said.

Ellis plans to help the organization set up better women's health programs in Africa, expanding services for obstetric and gynecologic care. And in addition to surgeries, Runnels will help educate local physicians, to encourage a more sustainable health care system within the various countries Mercy Ships visits.

The family is most looking forward to being together, without all the "static" that abides in their daily lives.

"We're busy here in the states and the paradox is that even though you live together under the same roof, you don't see much of each other because we're all headed in different directions," Runnels said. "One of the nice things about traveling is that you're all forced to be in the same place."

Here in Utah the family's primary breadwinner spends every other weekend on-call at the hospital, which means even longer hours away from home.

"One of the things that has changed in our modern world is that we're not allowed to be bored or inactive at any time and I think that is where you form relationships and really get to know people and strengthen family ties," he said.

After two years has come and gone, Runnels said they'll return to their "lucky" positions in life and will likely be better for their experience in Africa. But that experience will be considered an extra prize for him and his wife, who entered the medical professions merely to help people.

"That is the way the world goes round, and people who give are the only reason that something good like Mercy Ships exists," Runnels wrote. From the moment last spring, when he decided he wanted his family to be a part of the "giving chain," he said, "I realized that it's not the ship or the organization that makes Mercy Ships go, it's individuals making a leap of faith and committing to give that makes it go."

And for his children, Runnels said Monday that he wants them to understand "what a privilege it is to be an American," and to learn that serving their fellow man "is a valid way of life."

"It gives them an idea that they can do something like that," he said.

Mission of mercy:

• The Africa Mercy is a 499-foot steel ship, weighing more than 16,500 tons, that deployed in 2007.

• It is the world's largest non-governmental hospital ship, housing six operating theaters and a 78-bed patient ward, doubling the capacity of her two Mercy Ships predecessors.

• Mercy Ships provides faith-based charity work that is sponsored by corporate and individual donors, who have supplied more than $834 million in health care to more than 70 countries since 1978.

• An all-volunteer crew and staff of about 450, including everything from surgeons, dentists and other physician specialists, to hair stylists, chefs, engineers and welders, keeps the ship afloat and in operation. Participants can offer short- or long-term service and must apply for available positions and pay monthly crew fees once aboard.

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