May 18th, 2009

Medical Volunteer Opportunities Abroad

Something I often get asked when talking to people about Floating Doctors is ‘How did you come up with this idea?

There was no single blinding flash of light and revelation that brought Floating Doctors into being.  Rather, the events of my life seem to have swept me inexorably upon a tide of causality towards being here in Florida and readying the Southern Wind to carry me and my crew on a 20,000 mile medical relief voyage.  It is not always clear at the time why events unfold the way they do, and sometimes not even many years later!  But sometimes hours, months, or years later we are reminded and think ‘Oh, THAT’S why that happened in such-and-such a way!!  And today I was thinking about the experiences I have had (both pleasant and painful) and the decisions I have made (both good and bad!) that have led me to be here in this moment, dirty, tired, under enormous pressure—and how I would not trade places with anyone in the world right now!

As long as I can remember, I already firmly knew what I wanted to do-I wanted to be a Medical Doctor and a Marine Biologist.  My Dad used to take me to the hospital when he was on rounds; I had a little Fisher-Price toy medical kit, and he would leave me at the nurses’ station to read while he saw patients.
We’d go from ward to ward (I must have been about 5 or 6) but one day he came back and I was not at the nurses’ station.  A brief but frantic search ensued and I was found nearby listening to a patient’s chest with my toy stethoscope.  No harm was done—as it turned out, the patient was in a coma and the relative who had been watching bemusedly said ‘Why not? Might as well try everything.’  Such are the formative influences of childhood!

My parents, despite both suffering from dire seasickness, also supported my mysterious love of the sea from birth.  By age 8, they used to drop me with the deckhands on the sportfishing boats in Marina Del Rey (later they said they must have been crazy) and I began my tutelage of life on (and the life UNDER) the water.  I learned an enormous amount of seamanship and secrets of the sea fishing with, and eventually working for (all through high school and college) sport fishing charter boats, commercial fishing boats, field biologists, sport diving boats, Los Angeles Country Office of Marine Education—pretty much anywhere that would let me explore the ocean!

After completing degrees in Marine Biology and History from UCSB and teaching high school biology and anatomy for 2 years, I accepted and graduated from a training position in medicine, surgery and obstetrics at the Royal College of Surgeons, Ireland, eventually living and practicing in Ireland for 7 years.  After my arrival in Ireland, I focused my travelling on the developing world, particularly in Africa (a beautiful and often heartbreaking place).  Since most of my travelling came after I entered the medical world, wherever I have travelled I have had medical knowledge that could be of use.

While in Africa, I met people from whom I could not be more outwardly differentiated-by color, race, language, economics, religion, or geography.  When I can use my training to help ease a suffering or prevent illness, that I have some way I can be of service makes everything that might separate me from the person I can help becomes irrelevant.  Human suffering is universal; any ability I have to reduce it allows me to strengthen the bond of humanity (even a tiny, fractional bit) that should exist between all people.

Everywhere I go, I have been a doctor before anything else and I have never had enough medical supplies in my backpack (and I take all I can carry) to meet the need I have encountered.  I have never returned to the developed world with even a single aspirin left over.  I have seen the most tender care provided in the worst circumstances with no resources, and I have seen patients die of neglect in the most advanced hospitals in the world.

My father, Dr. George La Brot, has brought many stories back from his medical missions to Cambodia, Madagascar, Sierra Leone, and many other places.  He has worked in Mother Theresa’s Home for the Dying in Calcutta, and from his example I KNOW that it is our choice, wherever we are, every moment to take responsibility for health and suffering to the best of our abilities.  I have always been taught to do the job that is in front of you, and though the job may seem impossibly huge, it has to be started nonetheless!

5 years ago, I thought of a way to combine my all abilities-to provide high-quality, free medical care using a totally green vehicle (a properly outfitted offshore sailboat) and began to plan what would become the Floating Doctors.

Dr. Larry Brilliant decided to rid the world of smallpox.  After ten years, the World Health Organization was able to declare smallpox eradicated thanks to his efforts.

Dr. Paul Farmer has helped tens of thousands in Haiti and is fighting to rid the world of Tuberculosis.

Dr. Tom Dooley helped tens of thousands of people in Laos with a handful of loyal crew and a small jungle hospital.
A nurse stays hours past the end of her shift with a dying patient.

An anonymous person in a city spends $5.00 less on convenience food and sends the money to a charity instead.

A girl supports her friend’s efforts to stop smoking.

One person can make a huge difference, to millions of people or to a single, unique life- every moment, we can choose to be that person.
The choice is all of ours.