‘Bachelorette’ Alum Reflects on Time with Mercy Ships

For Dr. Joe Park, returning to his New York City apartment after his time in Senegal was a little jarring. He looked around at his nice clothes and shoes.

“Nonsense,” he said. “It’s all nonsense.”

He recently arrived home after fulfilling a lifelong dream to do medical missions. But it left him with some big questions — and a new ache in his heart.

 

Taking the Leap

It was the COVID-19 pandemic that motivated Dr. Park to take action.

“You always think that you have time and ‘I’ll get around to it… later,’” he said. “Then you realize there may not be a later.”

He applied to serve with Mercy Ships on board the Africa Mercy® in Senegal. He’d have to leave his job as an anesthesiologist for three weeks, to fly across the world and live on a ship.

“The leap between thinking about it and doing it, there is this chasm because of how crazy it might sound,” Dr. Park said.

Thankfully, he has a bit of experience in this arena.

A New ‘Reality’

When Dr. Park found himself interviewing to be on the reality show “The Bachelorette,” he couldn’t get his head around it.

“I’m not the most Alpha male, I don’t have so much bravado,” he said. “So I was like, ‘I’m not sure I’m cut out for TV.’”

But in 2020, he took what he called a “leap of faith.”

“What may seem like crazy adventures and this crazy decision, will be some of the most rewarding and most memorable experiences of your life,” he said.

On “The Bachelorette” and later “Bachelor in Paradise,” Dr. Park learned about unplugging from technology, about interpersonal dynamics, and about giving up control. All these lessons would serve him well on the next adventure.

3 Weeks in Senegal

The operating room on the Africa Mercy was unlike any Dr. Park had experienced. He learned this the first time he called to request a unit of blood for a patient.

The lab director soon knocked on the door and delivered it.

“I held it and it was still warm,” Dr. Park said. “I told her, ‘Thank you so much, where did you get this from?’ And she said, ‘It’s mine, I just donated it.’”

Dr. Park thought she was joking. Then, he looked at her arm.

“She still had the bandage from the donation wrapped around her arm,” he said. “It was incredible.”

For Dr. Park, that moment was a microcosm of the entire hospital ship.

“Everyone’s impact is felt in real-time,” he said. “Everyone works together in this beautiful way.”

 

Dancing Again

The greatest gift Dr. Park found on board the ship was the community. That included the crewmembers he worked alongside, and also the patients he served.

One of them was a little girl named Aminata. She needed a cleft palate repair, and before surgery, she was apprehensive.  “I remember her just clutching her mom so tightly,” he said.

After surgery, Dr. Park and Aminata developed a friendship. They would spend time together on the ward, playing Jenga and Connect 4.

“I brightened up when I saw her, she’d brighten up when she saw me,” he said.

Then one afternoon, during a party on the deck, Aminata began to dance.

“It just made me want to cry out of happiness,” he said. “That 6-year-old girl… she’s as human and as deserving of health and happiness as anyone else, and it’s just by circumstance that she was born in a place where she doesn’t have access to that.”

 

‘I Still Remember’

Now Dr. Parks is in his New York City apartment, with too many thoughts in his head to capture.

“Being there both filled my heart and it also broke my heart,” he said.

He’d wanted to help people — and he did.

“But coming back it’s like, I still remember their faces, I still remember their stories, and I know there’s so many more people like that who still need help,” he said. “It’s no longer this idea, this amorphous idea.”

Dr. Park has had multiple life-changing experiences over the past two years. And while he’s grateful that his time on TV gave him a platform to use for good — it didn’t give him what he’s really after.

“I think I got a taste of all the things that society tells you like, ‘That’s it.’”

People recognize him. He’s successful in his work. He’s surrounded by great food, nice wine, live music.

“But all that stuff, I realized none of that is that important,” he said. “I don’t need any of that stuff.”

Instead, his attention is shifting to those faces and stories he’s now carrying with him. And to the big question he can’t shake.

“I find myself asking… What do you do now, now that you know?”

He believes he’ll return to Mercy Ships someday.

“I’m sure I will be back to answer that question and do more of this work,” he said. “And to hopefully – I don’t want to say heal the broken heart — but definitely try to soothe it.”

Looking for opportunities to make your mark like Dr. Joe? No matter your skill set, there’s a place for you on board during this exciting season with Mercy Ships. Learn more at mercyships.org/makeyourmark