Dr. Ben LaBrot and Crew Plan to Set Sail and Save Lives
Benjamin LaBrot is planning to save the world. Okay, maybe not the whole world. But as many people in need as he can reach in 51 countries while sailing around the globe.
It sounds simple at first. Two doctors (Dr. LaBrot, 32, will be joined by Dr. David Barton, 28) and crew on a 60-ft. motor sailor, cruising from port to port, loaded with medical supplies and setting up makeshift clinics to offer free care to the local population. An inspired grassroots solution to a great need.
Then the complexity starts to sink in. A 60-sailboat jammed with two months’ supplies (enough to last to the next reliable point of shipment) will likely feel tiny after weeks at sea with seven on board. The two-year route extends across the Pacific, past Australia, across the Indian Ocean, along the African coast and then the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, past North Africa and around South and Central America. What about storms? Pirates? Language barriers? Malaria? Local militias? The mission begins to seem more than daunting. But spend an hour talking with LaBrot and you begin to believe that his whole life has led to this. He seems uniquely qualified and is nearly evangelical in his commitment.
‘For as long as I can remember, I always knew what I wanted to do, says LaBrot, who grew up in Pacific Palisades. ‘In second grade, I wanted to be a marine biologist and a doctor.’
His first 18 months of life were spent at the Surfrider, an old hotel on the beach in Venice, while his father, George, was in residence at Martin Luther King Jr. General Hospital. George started throwing LaBrot in the water at three months old. His mother, Paula, let him go out on local fishing boats before he was 10.
LaBrot was also immersed in the world of medicine early on. At six, he would go on rounds with his dad, usually entertaining himself at the nurse’s station. He recalls how he once wandered off to ‘treat’ a coma patient with his Fisher Price stethoscope.
After graduating from Chaminade College Prep, LaBrot pursued a degree in marine biology (and history) at UC Santa Barbara, also taking pre-med classes. He taught for two years to pay down student loans, then enrolled at to the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
‘[As an intern], I had 60 patients on my list every day,’ says LaBrot, who views Ireland’s government health service as ‘overburdened with bureaucracy and underfunded with resources. The average wait for a hip replacement would be two years, at which point you probably need the other hip done.’
But it taught him a different way of doctoring than is typical in the U.S.
‘I was told that 80 percent of my diagnoses needed to be done from the patient history and physical exam,’ LaBrot says. That focus on doing a lot with very little, together with his travels through Europe, convinced him that good medical care is simply a matter of efficiencies in delivery.
‘I believe that the resources for adequate health care do exist. My experiences . . . have convinced me that it’s merely a problem of distribution,’ he says. Hence, the trip around the world in a sailboat, which LaBrot says will be a ‘microcosm of [good] medical care.’
The mission of LaBrot, Barton and their crew, dubbed ‘Floating Doctors,’ is ‘to raise international awareness of current issues in world health care.’ In addition to offering care, they will survey health care delivery in the countries they visit.
Technology plays a big part in their plan. The crew includes a pair of filmmakers who will record the journey and produce a feature-length documentary on the state of global health care. The crew also plans to post interactive content at www.floatingdoctors.com throughout the voyage.
‘We’re going to create an on-line subscriber network, so that doctors and clinicians in the developing world can request consults from participating doctors in the developed world,’ LaBrot says.
What about LaBrot’s connectivity back at home? It helps that he’s taking his fianc’, Louise O’Loughlin, as part of the crew. She’ll offer nutritional advice to patients, help manage the health survey, accounting and other operational demands, and act as first assistant camera.
The lead filmmakers, Ishan Shapiro and Marija Coneva of Notthisbody Productions, are also engaged, which LaBrot cites as a space saver. He doesn’t seem concerned about the potential soap-opera elements of two couples and three single men onboard a sailboat for two years.
‘We’ll probably spend about 85 percent of our time at port and only 15 percent underway,’ LaBrot says, noting that they’ll be so busy compiling data, posting Web content, arranging future stops and fishing for dinner that there won’t be much time for drama.
Saving space is even more important now that the group’s plan has been revised. They have been fundraising while seeking approval as a 501 (c) (3) charity, working under the administrative umbrella of Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs, which already has nonprofit status. Not yet funded to buy a 60-foot boat, they found a 42-foot Peterson sloop at a lien auction and decided the price was too good to pass up.
The smaller boat will need another vessel to accompany it on the trip around the globe. But the crew, eager to deliver on commitments to supporters, will first set off on a nine-month trip this January. Visiting the 25 most remote islands in the Pacific as well as Central American coastal communities, they hope to treat 10,000 patients and distribute 20 tons of medical supplies.
‘Almost all of our support has come [in small gifts] from people who don’t have money to throw around,’ says LaBrot. Calmont Elementary School in Calabasas raised $425 in a bake sale. ‘I feel so responsible to those people.’
Floating Doctors expects to operate with a budget of $25,000 for the nine months, relying on an efficient cruising ethos to keep costs low.
‘Most of our protein is going to come from the fish we catch,’ says LaBrot, by way of example.
If food is easy to come by, detailed planning has been required for other elements. Direct Relief International, USA has donated $60,000 of medical supplies. Shipments of medicines relevant to diseases in specific countries needed to be coordinated around ports with reliable mail service.
Assembling the crew also raised logistical challenges. Shapiro is finishing an internship with director Wes Anderson in Paris. Barton, an Irishman who interned with LaBrot and is also an experienced sailor, is working at the Lahey Clinic in Boston. Daniel Murray, currently teaching at the Art Institute of Los Angeles culinary school, will be on-board chef and help with patient nutrition.
The captain’s job will be a rotation that includes Scott Walther, a PaliHi graduate. The first captain will be Ryan McCormick, an instructor who will certify all of the non-medical crew as EMTs.
LaBrot is undaunted by the challenges.
‘I’ve never had a problem bringing big bags of medical equipment and supplies through customs, through military checkpoints. Sometimes I’ve had to do a little ‘pro bono’ work on the spot,’ LaBrot says with a smile. ‘My experience is that if you bring the right attitude, there’s almost no barrier in the developing world that can’t be solved.’
He attributes his intense optimism to his mother, a drama teacher for years, who now teaches film studies at Chaminade.
He also hopes his father, who still practices in Santa Monica, will meet up with the crew en route. ‘He’s a brilliant diagnostician,’ LaBrot says.
Confidence and family support aside, Floating Doctors still needs to raise at least $90,000 for boat repairs and improvements and food and supplies before setting sail. But LaBrot hesitates about funding for only a moment before dreaming up something even bigger.
‘The ideal would be a 90-foot sailboat [with] 10-to-15 rotating physicians and two operating suites. That’s a vessel that could stay on site for several months . . . . Visiting clinicians could donate their services for weeks at a time,’ LaBrot imagines, delighted by the possibilities.