Physician's team of volunteers in scrubs will spend a month there before their broader humanitarian mission
We're jumping in the deep end," says Dr. Benjamin LaBrot. The 33-year-old physician and his crew of 15 medical relief workers were about to set off from Palm Coast, Fla., aboard the 76-foot medical boat Southern Wind to bring more than 20,000 pounds of relief supplies to Haiti. This isn't exactly how LaBrot had planned it, but it is exactly the sort of thing he had hoped to do when he conceived of Floating Doctors two years ago.
He acquired Southern Wind - a stout 76-foot double-ended motorsailer - signed up a volunteer crew of young, idealistic medical relief workers, and last spring began a nine-month refit of the yacht so they could embark on an 18-month medical mission to the Caribbean, Central America and South Pacific. The first stop all along was to be Haiti.
LaBrot expected to put in at Cap Haitien, on Haiti's north coast, in late February. About 80 miles from Port-au-Prince, it is Haiti's second-largest city and a refuge for many of the estimated 1 million Haitians left homeless by the Jan. 12 earthquake. LaBrot planned to offload the medical team and supplies there, then proceed west along the coast toward Port-au-Prince, helping distribute some 10,000 pounds of soap and shampoo cached in Cap Haitien by a group called Clean the World.
LaBrot says in the months after the quake, disease in the refugee camps will be a major concern. "We'll do whatever we need to be doing to help improve the situation," he says, whether operating a clinic, educating refugees in sanitary practices, helping at an orphanage or cleaning streets.
After a month, they will return to Florida to restock and continue to Belize and Guatemala for missions they'd planned there. Southern Wind, designed along the lines of a commercial fishing vessel, will carry 20,000 pounds of medical supplies to treat the infectious diarrhea, insect-borne illnesses, sexually transmitted diseases, parasites, malnutrition, trauma and wounds commonly found where modern medicine is in short supply.
"This boat was meant to haul 20,000 pounds of ice and fish," LaBrot says. "We're just converting that storage to medicines and medical equipment."
Southern Winds is Floating Doctors' home, transportation, warehouse and office. LaBrot says the boat is ideal for hauling supplies and, with its 7-foot draft, reaching remote coastal and island villages. It will operate efficiently, with sails to power it (in addition to a pair of diesels) and wind and solar power to help run its systems.
The son of a California doctor who went on medical missions to Sierra Leone, Madagascar and Cambodia, LaBrot says he grew up in a home that stressed personal responsibility and serving others. His dad, George LaBrot, never gave up making house calls and always stopped at accidents to help.
"You put patients first," the younger LaBrot says. "You stop and help where you can. That's the price you pay for being a doctor - being available."
And you go where you are needed most. While studying global medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, LaBrot heard a call to action in places where human suffering and need are overwhelming. During a 2005 visit to Tanzania, he drove to an isolated Maasai village on a one-man medical relief mission, only to see his backpack full of medical supplies quickly emptied while 60 patients still waited in line for help.
"I was on my own on the edge of the Serengeti in a dusty place, a lonely spot [after leaving the village]," he says. "I was really wrung out. Out there that morning in the Land Rover, I said, 'That's it. I'm coming back. And I'm going to bring as much as I can.' "
Floating Doctors, the name LaBrot has given his 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, is the manifestation of that promise to deliver more help. "Ben kind of knew from age zero that he wanted to be a doctor," says his younger sister Sky, 28, who also is a team member. When he was 5 years old, his dad would take him to the hospital and leave him at the nurses' station to read while he made his rounds. One day the little boy wandered off, and his dad found him in a hospital room listening to a patient's chest with a stethoscope.
LaBrot also has had a passion for the sea since he was young. He joined Sea Scouts as a kid, ran a water sports camp for teens on California's Channel Islands, crewed on commercial fishing boats and charter sportfishing yachts, earned a degree in marine biology and worked as a research diver.
He says it seems almost inevitable that he would be doing what he's doing now - leading a medical relief mission on a boat. LaBrot says the program makes sense. The motorsailer is economical and carries large quantities of supplies. It provides a home for the team. And it's a "green machine," he says. "There aren't many hospitals using solar and wind power."
The boat project
Southern Wind, a donated 39-year-old fixer-upper, was built in Ventura, Calif., of cold-molded marine plywood. The owners had stripped and gutted it to begin a total refit, but family health problems cut the project short. Southern Wind replaced an earlier donated boat, Blue Norther, a 43-foot Doug Petersen-designed aluminum racer-cruiser with a tenth of the carrying capacity of Southern Wind.
Like most fixer-uppers, this one turned out to be a lot more challenging than LaBrot envisioned, but he says it has given him the platform he needs. "The only way to have a boat like this is to have $2 million or have a boat that requires a ton of labor," he says.
His nine permanent crewmembers have been cutting out dry rot, fitting in new wood, fiberglassing, rewiring, rerigging, replumbing, overhauling the hydraulics, rebuilding the twin 671 Detroit diesels, refinishing the interior with 12 cabins and three heads - all during the last nine months. They could not have done it without the outpouring of help and support from the Flagler County/Palm Coast, Fla., community, says Sky LaBrot.
The couple who owned the boat had decided to move out of their house and let the team live in it, keeping the boat at their backyard dock during the refit. Others who heard about the project gave expertise, labor, food, money, boat gear and materials.
"I didn't understand what a community is until we started working on this boat," Sky says. "It has left me awestruck."
Vendors at a farmers' market were bringing over vegetables that were a little too old to sell, but Sky can process them with borrowed dehydrators and store the dried vegetables for the voyage. Laid-off workers from the Sea Ray plant in Palm Coast helped with fiberglass work. "When we couldn't pay them anymore, they showed up anyway," she says.
The St. Augustine Marine Center will give them a free haulout so they can paint Southern Wind's bottom, double-check the through-hulls and have the Coast Guard inspect it. Locals have dropped by to donate anchors, chains, fishing gear - and casseroles for the crew.
Dr. Ben, as people thereabouts call him, dropped in at a meeting of the Flagler County Sportfishing Club to talk about Floating Doctors' mission abroad, and he wowed them with his intensity and the size and audacity of his vision. "[LaBrot and his team] have a charisma about them that kind of bleeds out and people want to help them," says club president Jim Ingham. "We adopted them."
The club has sent barbecued ribs to the boat to feed the crew. Members have helped with the refit, and some have given gear. But perhaps their most valuable contributions have been the rods, reels, hooks, line, sinkers, floats, lures, cast nets - "new, used and abused," Ingham says - that the anglers have dug out of their garages and given to Floating Doctors. As the saying goes, give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. Adopting that philosophy, LaBrot and his team will give the tackle away so villagers can improve their diets and help ward off disease.
Floating Doctors has partnered with Direct Relief International, a Santa Barbara, Calif., non-profit that has given the program 9,500 pounds of medical supplies and equipment and has committed to delivering more as needed. The medical mission is supported by private donations and more than two dozen corporate and non-profit sponsors, including many that donated medical equipment and pharmaceuticals.
After Haiti and then restocking, LaBrot's itinerary includes Belize - where they'll trek into the interior to treat an outbreak of sand-fly borne parasites (leishmaniasis) in the Cayo District - Guatemala, Honduras, Colombia, Nicaragua, Panama and then the Pacific - including the Marquesas, the Cook Islands and Tonga - and back to the United States. They'll travel a total of 20,000 miles in 18 months, during which they plan to treat at least 15,000 people.
On part of the voyage, their skipper will be J. NeJame, a retired Marine Corps major and licensed captain (master, with sailing and towing endorsements) who has worked as a delivery skipper and operated sightseeing vessels and towboats, and has a background in radiology.
Most of Southern Wind's crew have little or no sailing experience, so while they have been learning the boat from the inside out refitting it, NeJame has been leading classes in navigation, Rules of the Road, weather, radio protocol, man-overboard procedures, deploying the life rafts - "the whole gamut of everything they're going to need to know," he says. "They have a lot of intestinal fortitude and a willingness to get into this and learn as much as they can."
Their trial by fire will be the first leg of the passage from Palm Coast to Key West. Crewing under another captain, Ryan Enberly, they'll do some ocean sailing and put in at ports along the Intracoastal Waterway. NeJame expects everyone to take a hand at the wheel, help with navigation, use the radio and dock the boat. "If [the skipper] falls overboard, their mission goes on," he says. "They have to go on." They will be able to sail the boat themselves.
Jamie Thrower, a 23-year-old public health graduate of San Francisco State University, already has a long résumé of helping people. She has worked with bereaved children, volunteered at a hospital, mentored Special Olympics athletes, taught art at an HIV/AIDS camp for children and designed a program to help young inner-city women go into the field of biomedical research.
She will be surveying the villagers and compiling a health profile of common diseases, diet, water and food sources, and attitudes toward health care so the team can develop an educational program or even undertake a works project - for instance, digging a ditch to direct sewage away from the water supply. "I can't wait," she says. "This is something I've been waiting to do my entire life."
She says idealism is alive and well among her generation. "A lot of my friends want to make a difference in the world, but it takes that extra step to actually get up and do it," she says. "They've got to step out of their safe zone."
Nick Wansten, 27, a former Army scout, is a trained combat lifesaver and EMT, and he recently served in the ski patrol at Big Bear Lake, Calif. Wansten has his sights set on becoming a doctor, but for the last eight months he has been learning plumbing, electricity and fuel, hydraulic and air-conditioning systems. "Everybody here has knowledge in different things, so we all learn from each other," he says. Wansten says he hasn't really been out sailing since he was 9 years old, with his Uncle Mike on Lake Michigan. He loved it.
"This whole project is rekindling my desire to learn to sail and explore," he says.
Floating Doctors already is making a big difference - to those on the medical team, says Sky LaBrot, who came to Southern Winds from a glamour job as "luxury brand" manager supplying high-priced wines, cognacs and other beverages to 150 clubs and restaurants in Los Angeles and Hollywood. Her brother had asked her many times to join him as his operations manager. He needed an organizer.
"I love shoes. I love shopping. I love purses," she says. "I just rolled my eyes."
Finally he prevailed. "When your older brother tells you he needs you, you go," she says. "I went from eating sushi lunches to renovating a boat."
She turned out to be a quick study in fiberglassing. A culinary arts graduate, she also does a lot of the cooking for the crew. She'll be doing the scheduling and advance work when the mission gets under way. "I've never been happier," she says. "What a surprise to me." Maybe it shouldn't have been; her dad had always told her, "Live a life of service and you'll be happy."
Besides diagnosing and treating people, teaching them better health practices, finding out more about their traditional medical practices and helping them improve their food and water supplies, LaBrot says he hopes to demonstrate how a team like his can do more with less and make a real difference in a community's health. LaBrot will carry a donated hand-held ultrasound machine for prenatal examinations and other diagnostic work, as well as an i-STAT, a portable blood analyzer, to do blood work without having to send it to a lab.
"What they are doing is very ambitious," says the fishing club's Ingham.
The crew of Southern Wind are aware that some think it may be too ambitious. "They say it's too big, too big a dream," Sky says. "I don't listen to them. I've got too much of my heart and soul in this to go back to a restaurant in L.A."
And her big brother already is looking beyond this mission. One day he hopes to deploy a fleet of medical-relief boats around the world.
For information, visit www.floatingdoctors.com.
This article originally appeared in the April 2010 issue.