Volunteer Dr. Parrish Passes It On
“We were able to provide advice and free medication, but more than that, I feel important human connections can be made in just one encounter. I got and gave a lot of hugs.”
Dr. Gary Parrish has practiced Emergency Medicine for 27 years and can’t begin to count how many broken bodies were part of his ER career. Being an ER doctor was a career he loved, but a few years ago his interest in global health spirited him away to do volunteer stints in Haiti and Ecuador. The experiences confirmed that his destiny was expanding beyond the walls of an ER and the borders of the United States. He put in his retirement papers and finished the last shift of his career on October 31, 2010, at 11p.m. He had no idea what was next, but within days an email pinged in from Project HOPE. “We’d like to put you on a ship,” it read.
Months earlier, Dr. Parrish had been on an airplane, by chance seated next to a Project HOPE employee who was working on the ground in Haiti. The two men chatted and soon realized their common passion for humanitarian relief efforts. By the time the plane touched down, Dr. Parrish expressed his interest in a Project HOPE mission. He didn’t hear back…until the first week of his retirement. The timing felt providential.
The son of a single mother who worked double shifts as a nurse’s aide, Dr. Parrish always wanted to be a doctor. His friends began calling him Dr. Parrish in 8th grade, and his conviction never wavered even when he had no idea how he would afford medical school. While an undergrad at Vanderbilt, he applied for a job in a doctor’s office and spent the next four years paying for school with that paycheck. The doctor he worked for became a mentor and father figure, a man so impressed with Dr. Parrish’s potential that he paid for Dr. Parrish’s medical education. Once Dr. Parrish began earning a salary, he tried to pay his patron back. But the money was refused. “Pass it on,” he was told.
Dr. Parrish’s first experience with Project HOPE during our week in Jamaica confirmed his belief that establishing a human connection, however brief, is as important as medical treatment. “I saw a lot of chronic disease and a lot of severe arthritis in Jamaica,” he says. “We were able to provide advice and free medication, but more than that, I feel important human connections can be made in just one encounter. I got and gave a lot of hugs.”
Dr. Parrish’s HOPE colleagues have come to enjoy his joking demeanor. When he was recently asked to assume the position of Medical Director for Project HOPE during this mission, he asked, “Well, how will this affect my pay grade? Has the paperwork been submitted to the appropriate people?” (Note to readers: ALL HOPE positions on this mission are volunteer.)
As we sailed to our next stop in Peru, Dr. Parrish indulged his interest in all things Navy by touring the Comfort’s engine room with his Hope colleagues. He also attended virtually every educational lecture given during our transit week, navigating his way around this enormous ship as if he were a seasoned Navy man. He even distinguished himself in the scullery, on the night that HOPE volunteers took their turn with dinner duties.
Dr. Parrish has a Zen-like sense that he’s being led on a path that’s not really under his control. But he’s OK with that. “I don’t need to know how my future is going to unfold. But I do know that Project HOPE is part of an exciting beginning to the next phase of my life.”