Few have changed the lives of people the way the volunteers on the Africa Mercy have. Serving aboard the world's largest civilian hospital ship, they have restored sight to thousands of people suffering from cataracts and returned smiles to victims of facial tumors and cleft palates whose deformities made them social outcasts. Scott Pelley goes to Togo on Africa's West Coast to report on the Africa Mercy ship's patients and the dedicated doctors and nurses who have made the ship and its mission a way of life. Pelley's report will be broadcast on 60 Minutes Sunday, Feb. 17 at 7:00 p.m. ET/PT.
The Africa Mercy spent five months docked in Togo, where its staff removed 281 tumors, repaired 34 cleft palates and restored sight to 794 cataract patients who had been blind, some for decades. Maxillofacial surgeon Dr. Gary Parker left his native California and UCLA where he trained and volunteered for what he thought might be a temporary assignment removing facial tumors and performing other procedures on Third World patients. That was 26 years ago. He has since married his wife, whom he met onboard, and raised two children on the ship, all along transforming the lives of people, some of whom could literally not show their faces in the light of day.
"These are people that go out at night and they forage for food and then, in the day, they hide," Parker tells Pelley, about those horribly deformed by benign facial tumors. "They can't go to market...school. They are isolated."
To nurse Ali Chandra of New Jersey, the work they do helps to humanize those deemed inhuman through no fault of their own, whose maladies are often blamed on curses or evil spirits. Asked by Pelley what she would say to those in her profession who would be unable to work with such disfigured people, she answers, "People have been saying that to these people their whole lives and someone has to look them in the eye and tell them 'you're human and I recognize that in you.'"
A four-year veteran, Chandra also met her spouse onboard -- a fairly common scenario that has earned the ship another name, "the Love Boat" -- and plans to stay awhile, perhaps, like Parker, raising her family onboard, sending them to the ship's school and vacationing periodically in the U.S.
She is quite content with her life. "I miss strawberries and I miss fresh milk and I miss my family -- not in that order," she tells Pelley. "You have no idea how awesome this life is. I get to see the world...take care of incredible people. Why would you want to live in a house on land? This is way more fun," says Chandra.