Floating Doctors

A doctor who is on-call throughout the developing world!

When Benjamin LaBrot was in second grade in Southern California, he told his class that when he grew up he wanted to be two things: a doctor and a marine biologist. His teacher told him he had to choose one, but he was determined to combine his love of the ocean with his desire to help people.

He started achieving his goals in junior high school, when he worked on sport and commercial fishing boats and the Marine Science Floating Laboratory vessel as a research diver. This led him to become certified as an emergency medical technician and a scuba dive buddy for divers with paraplegia, quadriplegia or blindness.

Throughout his schooling, he and his peers went on personal medical missions all over the developing world. After college he moved to Ireland and joined the global medicine program at the Royal College of Surgeons.

It was on one particular mission to Tanzania in 2006 that he truly found his calling. With a backpack full of medicine, he set up under a tree in a desolate and impoverished village in the Serengeti. A line of 50 patients formed, all of them with a variety of ailments from tuberculosis to lion wounds to common colds.

It was not long, however, before the supplies in his backpack were depleted and the line had only grown longer. Heartbroken and driven to tears by the fact that he would have to leave patients untreated, he decided then and there that he would never leave a patient untreated, no matter what the circumstance.

In 2008, the group Floating Doctors was established with the mission to bring medical relief to remote coastal communities around the world. With the realization that approximately 80 percent of the world’s population lives within 5 miles of the coast and that access to the poorest communities is often best attained by waterways, the group decided to buy a 76-foot sailboat, called “The Southern Wind.” LaBrot now had “a much bigger backpack” and would never run out of supplies again.

With his sister Sky LaBrot — then a Hollywood restaurant and club opener — and a handful of volunteers, they loaded “The Southern Wind” with 25,000 pounds of medical supplies and set sail for their first medical mission in 2010: the coast of Haiti to respond to the cholera epidemic that resulted from the tragic earthquake. In roughly three months they facilitated 35 mobile clinics and treated 2,500 patients.

“If you can do Haiti, you can do anywhere,” says LaBrot, who learned Creole during his stay to communicate with patients and build trust with the community. “So we set sail for the Bay Islands of Honduras, and then onward to Bocas Del Toro, Panama.”

Since 2012 LaBrot has been in Panama, which is ideally suited for Floating Doctors as it has hundreds of small island communities that are widely dispersed and accessible only by water. These communities have no access to health care and lack the transportation infrastructure to get to a hospital during an emergency scenario. In the villages where the Floating Doctors sets up mobile clinics, LaBrot and his volunteers treat patients with tuberculosis, respiratory infections, diabetes and a variety of local tropical diseases. “Too often,” he says, “it is not so much treating, as it is preventative medicine. It’s the little things that make the most impact: a toothbrush, a bar of soap and a pair of glasses. “

To this day, Floating Doctors has treated approximately 20,000 patients in three countries.

A saying that LaBrot follows is, “to the world you may be just one person, but to another person, you might be the world.” This is what drives him to push through physical, financial, cultural and sometimes logistical barriers to do whatever it takes to treat every patient in need.

LaBrot says many people have asked him, “Wouldn’t you rather be in private practice in Southern California, making tons of money and do this relief work a couple weeks a year?” And he responds, “Why? Why would I work all year round to do what I love for a couple weeks? It will never compare to what I get out of this project every single day. Floating Doctors has changed me in ways I never anticipated, and I will do this for the rest of my life.”

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Produced by Gabriel Noble. Edited by Amina Megalli. Cinematography by Robbie Stauder. Audio by Blair Johnson. Associate Producers: Meghan Moore and Anne Koester. Production Supervisor: Michael Manas, Sound Mixer: J.J. Brown. Graphics Editor: Todd Tanner. Executive Producers: Russ Torres and Charity Elder for Yahoo! Studios.

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