Stories that Spark: Ben LaBrot x Floating Doctors

4 July 2024


As the founder and CEO of ⁠Floating Doctors⁠, Ben LaBrot has dedicated his life to bringing essential medical care to remote communities in need. 

Ben LaBrot Floating Doctors

Ben LaBrot always felt tugged in two directions – drawn to heal people as a physician but also pulled by a lifelong love of the ocean and marine science. Despite many claims that “You can’t do both, you have to pick one”, Ben set out on a journey that would challenge these assertions and forge an unorthodox path to make an impact.

Welcome to Ben LaBrot’s story, a reminder never to save anything for the swim back.

What’s Included:

  • Ben’s journey from medical school aspirant to founder of Floating Doctors
  • The birth and growth of a unique healthcare initiative
  • Insights into delivering medical care in remote locations
  • Lessons for aspiring humanitarian healthcare workers
  • The impact of combining passion with purpose
  • Podcast – watch or listen to Ben’s story via the World Extreme Medicine Podcast

Podcast:Ben LaBrot x Floating Doctors

In this episode Ben joins us to share his incredible journey of delivering healthcare to remote, underserved communities around the world.

Inspiration to Go Abroad

Ben set his sights on medical school in the United States, dedicating a year to visiting campuses and tailoring applications. But at the final hour, calamity struck – a technical glitch blocked submission of those meticulous applications.

Just in time, a friend of his father redirected Ben’s trajectory. Having worked alongside Royal College of Surgeons‘ graduates, he raved about the rigorous clinical preparation and exposure to diverse perspectives from around the globe. Driven by a hunger for challenge, purpose and possibility, Ben pivoted: If America’s doors had closed, he would leap across the Atlantic instead.

The reimagined journey echoed Ben’s spirit of exploration beyond a prescribed path. Never having travelled overseas before, the prospect of diving into a new cultural landscape as part of his medical training only heightened the intrigue. 

The Vision Behind Floating Doctors

At the Royal College of Surgeons, Ben was suddenly immersed in a global community of high achievers. During late nights studying or meal times, passions and ideas mingled. One discussion stuck – after graduation, a classmate suggested Ben visit East Africa to climb Mt Kilimanjaro and explore the Serengeti.

While driving through the veldt in the shadow of Mt. Ngorongoro, Ben was invited to visit a Maasai community in an extremely remote location. As a newly-minted doctor, Ben soon had his first ‘sidewalk consultation’, many miles from the nearest sidewalk. That single consult turned into many hours of attending as many people as he could, his tiny medical kit soon exhausted and relying on advice, physiotherapy, and other patient-centred treatments.

“I promised that I would come back to that community, or any like it in the world where people lacked access to care, and I would bring a much bigger backpack.”

Coming from a maritime background, Ben’s mind raced – could he deliver medical care by boat to remote communities? The statistics underlined immense needs at the margins of health systems. As Ben explains:

“I mean, 80% of the world’s population lives within five miles of the coast. Aid always seems to go to the big population centres, and the remote communities are forgotten. But if we do this right, then the sea will make it possible to remedy this. We’re halfway home–all we need is a ship, a crew, supplies, and funding.”

The Birth of Floating Doctors

After knocking on many doors, in 2009 a 115 ton sailing ship 76′ long–that was a complete derelict wreck–was provided by an older couple who dreamed of seeing their beloved ship continue on in a new incarnation. Ben and a rag-tag dozen volunteers, including his sister, spent a year:

  • Sleeping on the floors of a 3 bedroom house in Florida
  • Rising every morning to slowly rebuild the ship top to bottom
  • Scraping together supplies and resources to outfit the Southern Wind
  • Feeding everyone from food a local supermarket was throwing out
  • Speaking at rotary clubs, boat shows, and church groups
  • Sending thousands of emails between fiberglassing, welding, carpentry, engine work, plumbing, wiring, and rigging

“We fed everyone from food a local supermarket was throwing out to make room for new stock, we spoke at rotary clubs and boat shows and church groups and sent thousands of emails in between fiberglassing, welding, carpentry, engine work, plumbing, wiring, rigging, etc. We borrowed dehydrators from neighbours and ran them 24/7, stocking away hundreds of pounds of dried food for our voyage. And we began to change from a group of misfits into a real crew. In early spring of 2010, our ship was repaired, loaded with supplies, and fuelled. But we had no money, none at all… no organisational money, no personal money, literally NOTHING. Every well was dry, every bit of goodwill exhausted… it was go time, or the end. And then disaster struck…”

Answering the Call in Haiti

In 2010 a devastating earthquake shattered Haiti, killing over 300,000 people and destroying much of its infrastructure. 

“It was put up or shut up time. Our whole organisation was founded on the idea that mobility and response and self-sufficiency could support responding to just such a catastrophe.”

Ben and his crew sailed for Haiti with empty pockets and a hold full of lumber and medical supplies, arriving in Haiti a few days later and diving right into work partnered with a local charitable clinic and building replacement school rooms.

Arriving in the rubble-strewn capital with empty pockets but an abundance of resolve, Floating Doctors was born amid both calamity and conviction. In the desperate days that followed, landing ashore each morning and walking through their patients’ neighbourhoods to work in the clinic, the early model took shape. 

“Everything we do today, the way we operate, came from our experience in those first weeks in Haiti–lots of hard lessons, a lot of inexplicable luck, and plenty of bad examples of aid work in Haiti that showed us what NOT to ever do.”

The FD crew then spent a year working among the Bay Islands off Honduras, coming face to face with the tragedies of drug violence and the child sex-trafficking industry, returning to Haiti during the subsequent cholera epidemic there, and then accepting an invitation to the Bocas del Toro archipelago in Panama, where Floating Doctors established their first remote rural healthcare services, trading in their beloved ship for giant dugout canoes and fibreglass pangas.

Delivering 21st Century Care, 19th Century Style

Today, over a dozen years later, Floating Doctors teams deploy 52 weeks a year from their remote island base in Panama to provide health services, education, and community development support to a network of over 25 indigenous Ngäbe-Buglé communities spread over 18,000 square kilometres of mangrove mazes and jungle-covered mountains.

Regularly plying the waters off Panama, the team travels over 10,000km annually in their open boats–and in rubber boots with packhorses in the mountains–to isolated villages without roads or basic amenities. Trekking through dense jungles and forests, they make old-fashioned house calls, sitting with patients and families through extended consultations. Yet inside their vintage doctor bags lie state-of-the-art ultrasound devices and diagnostics.

It’s a marriage of past and future, personal and high-tech, necessity and invention. As Ben LaBrot describes it:

“It’s a lot like being a 19th century country doctor… except your black bag is filled with 21st-century tools. It’s the kind of medicine I always dreamed being a doctor would be like, just a bit muddier, hotter, and a lot greener than I originally envisioned. As the saying goes, ‘if Mohammed doesn’t go to the mountain, the mountain must come to him’… if our patients can’t travel to health care, then our clinic must go to them.”

Under Ben’s passionate leadership, Floating Doctors meets people where they are, reaching villages no one else could or would.

Takeaways for Volunteers

For doctors used to 10-minute appointments confined to office walls, fighting with payers over prior authorisations and reimbursement appeals, and spending more time navigating their behemoth EMRs than actually speaking to patients, the experience of plunging into remote regions and focusing their entire attention on patients often leaves a profound impression. Young residents feel like “real physicians” again, building intimate bonds with patients over hours-long house calls. Seasoned doctors rediscover the raw joys of practice they may have lost over time to bureaucracy and paperwork.

Floating Doctors has heavily curated its volunteer elective experience to maximise the opportunities for personal and professional growth. As Ben puts it:

“I don’t care how good a doctor you already are, or how good a person… if you don’t return home a better clinician and even more compassionate person, then we will have failed you. Our goal is that our patients get better access to care and that communities become healthier and more robust… but ALSO that health care in all the home countries of our volunteers is improved–we want our impact not only to be local but also ten years and 10,000 miles away from where you worked with us.”

Why This Matters

In his own unconventional career journey, never allowing others to fence in his passions with “you can’t do both”, Ben models how doctors can chart their own course and follow their purpose to transform healthcare. By mixing expertise with experimentation, excellence with exploration, he illuminates a path to profoundly impact access and lives.

“It is our own lives that are most impacted … it’s not about being a hero, it’s about finding a way to express caring ABOUT people so you can care FOR people. Aboriginal activist Lilla Watson said ‘If you have come here to help me you are wasting your time. But if your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’ Ben is a much better physician, a much kinder and more compassionate person than I will ever be… but this job, this life, continually reminds me that’s who I want to become.”

After over a decade on the water, pursuing dreams once deemed incompatible, Ben is still guided by the virtues of that wide-eyed young man enchanted equally by the pull of people and the sea. And that landlocked little Maasai village where a chance visit set this destiny in motion all those years ago? Ben and his new wife returned there eight years later, on their honeymoon, where they brought a much bigger backpack and a lot more savvy about how to help, attended everyone in the community and were then dressed and married as Maasai at a feast to celebrate the reuniting of friends from different worlds.

And even today, every couple of months Ben receives an email from the chief’s son, who walks 40 miles to the nearest small town to get access, and their ongoing telemedicine exchange continues this unlikely relationship.

After weathering the pandemic (a story for another time), the Floating Doctors programme continues to expand its reach and impact, but Ben dreams of their flag flying in many other locations around the world. If anything, the voyage has just begun.

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive.” ― Yann Martel, Life of Pi

→ Want to learn more about humanitarian medicine? Check out the World Extreme Medicine Humanitarian Medicine Course, featuring insights from practitioners like Ben LaBrot.

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