Monee woman packs compassion for her worldwide mission trips
BY JAIME ANGIO Correspondent November 14, 2012 2:06PM
Sue Zion-Sulka, a retired nurse who has traveled the globe helping people in need on mission trips, shows off some of her certificates at her home in Monee. | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media
Updated: December 16, 2012 6:01AM
Sue Zion-Sulka was working as a proofreader at a newspaper in New Jersey when she befriended a woman who years later would open the door for opportunities she otherwise never would have imagined.
Zion-Sulka believes she makes a difference in the lives of underprivileged people worldwide. She has gone on 13 medical mission trips — and counting — to places such as Ethiopia, Indonesia, Nicaragua, El Salvador and the Dominican Republic.
She owes it to her newspaper friend, Desi Ferrell, who now is vice president of Healing the Children, a nonprofit volunteer organization.
“We remained friends and would contact each other,” Zion-Sulka said of Ferrell. “She, at one point, had two detached retinas and almost lost her sight, and she promised God at that point that if she didn’t lose her sight she would do something to serve Him and children for the rest of her life.”
Working for Ferrell’s group and using her own 28 years of experience as an operating room nurse at Christ Hospital in Oak Lawn, Zion-Sulka, 65, of Monee, has helped more than 1,000 children.
Her missions almost never happened: Her career choice was either computers or nursing.
After growing up in Chicago, the Lindblom High School graduate and single mom was looking for a career. She enrolled at Loyola University, and went on to earn a degree in nursing in 1982.
“I think nursing is a great opportunity for women,” Zion-Sulka said. “I didn’t think it would ever happen to me. I’ve been really lucky and blessed and fortunate ... all those great words you have to say for having a really wonderful life and being able to do what I’ve been able to do.”
Ferrell, heading a New Jersey chapter of Healing the Children, called Zion-Sulka when she was putting together medical mission trips to the Dominican Republic. She asked Zion-Sulka if she was interested in coming along.
Volunteers pay for their mission trips, but Zion-Sulka didn’t think twice.
Her first mission, to La Vega, Dominican Republic, in 1999, was an “unbelievably humbling” experience, she said, citing amenities that many people have but take for granted.
“Rarely do you go into a bathroom that has toilet paper. You’ve got to learn to carry your own,” Zion-Sulka said. “I’ve been lucky to have some that have had toilet seats on them, and I’ve been lucky that some of them flush. ... It’s just unbelievably poor. The poverty is overwhelming. They do what they have to do with what they have.
“You realize what you have and it’s very moving and you come back feeling like a million dollars and you have really done something good with your life, something really important. And it felt good to give back.”
Zion-Sulka has gone on medical mission trips nearly every year since.
In 2005, Ferrell made her aware of a different opportunity. A tsunami hit in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, and Project Hope was looking for volunteers to work on the USNS Mercy, a naval hospital ship.
This time, Zion-Sulka was helping adults and children. Doctors would go ashore and evaluate patients, who would be brought to the ship via helicopter.
“It was a crisis,” Zion-Sulka said. “It was so moving to see how the tsunami just totally wiped out villages. I was lucky enough to go on shore one day, and I was talking to a young woman who brought me over to a wall of pictures and she said, ‘These are my relatives that are missing,’ and I said to her, ‘I’m so sorry,’ and she said, ‘Oh, no, please don’t be sorry.’
“They are just very accepting of the fact that it happened, and it occurred and they’re just willing to go on. They were very sad they lost their family members and it was a part of life.”
Shortly after her two-week stay on the ship, an earthquake hit nearby Nias Island and Zion-Sulka returned to the USNS Mercy for a six-week mission.
She recently returned from her 13th trip, a medical mission to El Salvador.
“Coming home, it’s always a feeling of accomplishment,” she said. “Each trip always has its certain children or people that you remember that really touch your heart, that maybe just made things more meaningful for you.”
Zion-Sulka experienced a life-changing moment during one trip when she saw how a female patient reacted to a surgical procedure.
“I’ll always remember her,” Zion-Sulka said. “Her feet were so misshapen and deformed (before the surgery) ... when she woke up and she was crying that she had never seen her toes upright before, that was monumental to me.”
Zion-Sulka, who still works part time as a nurse at a plastic surgery center in Oak Lawn, isn’t slowing down on her missions anytime soon. Her son, Derek, is studying prosthetics at Joliet Junior College and has accompanied her on two mission trips.
“I thought I was going to retire a few years ago until my son got into it,” she said. “Now I want to get him established with his podiatry team.”
The opportunities Zion-Sulka never imagined proved to be her life’s mark.
“I feel like my life has made a difference in other people’s lives,” she said. “I feel like I’ve done something with my life. I’m not a person who will sit back and say, ‘Well, boy, what did I ever accomplish in my life?’ I feel like this is what I was made for, this why I’m here.”