“Always strive for the far shore. Don’t save anything for the swim back.”
by Dr. Ben
One of the most common questions I am asked (aside from “where are we?” and “can you come look at this weird rash?”) is how this all started. I’m never quite sure how to answer that—the true origin of anything always seems to be just one more link further back in a very long chain of causality.
But moving the clock hand back about a dozen years finds me traveling as a new doctor in Tanzania, and for me this is where Floating Doctors truly begins. I travelled to Tanzania as a tourist, to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and to see the wildlife of the Serengeti. Kilimanjaro was amazing, but on the drive out to Serengeti the guide asked if I wanted to visit a nearby Maasai village. It sounded interesting. Of course I said yes.
We turned down a dusty road and soon came to a small Maasai village of about 140 people. The village was truly located in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a dry, dusty plain with no water, at least 30 miles from the nearest ANYTHING, and a lot further from even the nearest small town. I liked the Maasai immediately. They were very poor, and very proud, and very confident in their strength and their identity. And very tall.
Pretty soon, it came out in conversation that I was a doctor, and what happens everywhere to all doctors happened to me: “Oh, you’re a doctor—hey, do you mind having a look at this thing on my [insert any body part name]?” So I attended one person. Then another. Then another. Then I was sitting on a small stool under an acacia tree and seeing people as fast as I could. Lots of little problems, some big problems. Musculoskeletal issues, pregnant women, respiratory issues, old poorly healed injuries (lion wounds). The oversized personal first-aid kit I had with me was quickly emptied and I went “Oh….resource-limited health care. So this is what that is. What do I do now?” There was still a big group of people that wanted to be seen.
I started get creative. If someone had back pain, I showed them straight-leg stretches and safe lifting techniques and explained why they could help. Everyone was chronically dehydrated and I talked about the importance of drinking enough water but acknowledged that since the village had to buy all its water, that would be difficult but maybe the pregnant women could be prioritized. I did some wound care. I wasn’t able to do everything I wanted to do for everyone, and often there was devastatingly little at all that I could offer. But I tried very hard to find something.
Hours later, it was time to go. I stood up and the chief’s son and several other village leaders thanked me and gave me Maasai jewelry as gifts. I promised that if I could ever come back, I would. Then I got back in the Land Rover and was pretty emotional. Something had happened to me. I knew that this was what I wanted to do. This was the medicine I was looking for. As we drove away from the village I swore to myself that I would return there one day, or anywhere people were poor and far from care…and I would bring a much bigger backpack.
From that day I thought of almost nothing else but how I would do this…with my background on the water and the mobility and self-sufficiency of a ship, I imagined bringing help by sea, and began the “what if we…?” mental game that occupied me when walking though the hospital on rounds, when driving home late at night, when sitting at home, when walking through the grocery store. Eventually I had a plan to get a ship, get a crew, get supplies, and visit many locations and conduct mobile clinical services. I found an old, beat up-ship in Florida and with my sister Sky, my friend Ryan and a small team of dedicated volunteers managed to rebuild her. It took a couple of dozen people over a full year, with about 10 of us stuffed into one house, sleeping on the floor and working every day to rebuild the 100-ton ship we had obtained. It was touching because in one of the most economically hard-hit regions in the country, a LOT of people extended themselves to us and shared their time and knowledge and resources. And after 12 brutal months, we were as ready as we were going to be….
…and then the 2010 Haiti earthquake happened, we set sail for Haiti and haven’t quit since. The rest is history. After Haiti, then Honduras, then Haiti again during the cholera epidemic, then to Panama where we determined to build our first permanent rural health care and community development service.
Years have passed since we first set sail for Haiti (it feels like a thousand years of incident packed into that time). Many mistakes, many hard lessons, many lucky escapes and many skills learned. My own destiny (and many others) altered forever in ways I never expected. I never dreamed that by now Floating Doctors would have grown so far and so fast. Who knows what the future will hold? One day I dream of seeing the Floating Doctors flag flying over similar permanent services rendered on many different shores, and perhaps a fleet of ships offering different specialist services traveling between land-based services, offering specialist care at each location annually. Or maybe something I can’t even imagine.
It all sounds so remote and impossible, but who can tell what may happen? After all, the unlikely epilogue to our origin story is that many years after my first visit to the Maasai village in Tanzania, I DID keep my promise to return…on my honeymoon with my wife Karine. We brought a much bigger backpack, packed the way I WISH I had known to pack all those years ago. My wife and I attended nearly everyone including people from neighboring villages, and when they learned we had just been married they slaughtered a goat and we shared a feast with them. Then they dressed us and married us as Maasai. And the moment when one of the senior women in the village took the copper rings from her fingers and placed them on ours was a moment I will never, ever forget. It feels good to have kept that promise to return, and to continue to keep that promise to others.
Beyond a lot of human kindness, a lot of hard work, and more than a fair amount of luck, I’ve learned that one of the secrets of this success story is that the world does not usually favor half-measures. I—and many others—risked everything to make this dream a reality, and there were many moments where we hung by a single thread…but here we are today. We arrived in Haiti a few weeks after the earthquake with literally NO money–no Floating Doctors money, no personal money… just a medical expedition ship full of supplies, fuel, food and a dedicated crew. And we worked without money for weeks until we began to receive other donations and began our long climb to the large-scale rural health service we now operate. When I look back on that first journey to Haiti, I think we must have been insane…and yet here we are.
There’s never a guarantee that we’ll successfully make every crossing we attempt in this life…but that first voyage to Haiti, and my visit visit back to that small Maasai village where it all began remind me to always dream big, strike out for the far shore with all your strength and endurance and to never to save anything for swim back, until your long swim ends with your feet touching down on a new world.