June 21, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida
Today marks the longest day of the year, and for us it surely was! We got up before dawn an piled into our rental jeep to head down to the beach and watch the sunrise over the water—a novelty for those us from the west coast, but we were thwarted by low clouds on the eastern horizon. Still, as we staggered out of the house in the pre-dawn (already in the high 70’s), the sky was a deep purple and shapes of houses and trees loomed out of it suddenly as we drove down the road to the Hammock Dunes beach nearby.
The sand is made of crushed clamshells and is multicolored; when we come here on Sunday afternoons to lie in the sun and recharge our solar batteries for another long week of work in on the boat, we never get fine sand stuck to us, which is nice, but we DO leave the beach with hundreds of little shell shards suction-cupped to us, and they are surprisingly hard to dislodge (since we discover them in our hair, on our backs, and other hard-to-reach places hours after we leave the beach).
We were all too tired to be chatty, and the pre-dawn is never a time for idle conversation—pre-dawn is when the world holds its breath like the audience at a concert, waiting for the first notes of the symphony while the conductor stands with hands raised, waiting to bring the whole orchestra into life. I think I understand why, at an intuitive level, so many religions originated with worship of the sun. The moments before it arrives above the horizon are filled with such expectation and faith (that it will, in fact, come up!) that every sunrise becomes a religious experience.
Today, a third member of my crew independently used the phrase “my previous life” to describe their life before they came here. So far away from the things that are familiar, working on something that is REAL and will leave a lasting mark in many lives around the world, many of the problems that seemed so important when we were immersed in them now seem more remote—and more than remote; they seem much less relevant to our lives and we wonder why we worried so deeply or hurt so badly or got so wrapped up in some drama or other. Our perspectives have changed. We are developing more perspective every day on the things that truly do matter—friends, service, honor, hope, determination, and family, which in the absence of our own relatives has been filled with each other. I still can’t get over how quickly we have all bonded, and it makes me think we just might survive long ocean passages as friends!
June 5, 2009. Palm Coast, Florida.
It is 2:00 AM in Palm Coast…all my crew that have arrived here in Palm Coast so far are passed out asleep after yet another brutal day getting our sailboat ready to sail south with all our medical supplies. We are so tired at the end of the day we rarely go out except to get something we need at Home Depot, WalMart, Publix supermarket, etc.We cook together in the house we have been sharing for the last few weeks (the boat isn’t ready to live in quite yet!), then nearly every night sit on the screened patio around our little table and talk (often about how to solve challenges we encounter during our daily re-build of our boat, often about what our voyage will be like, and often about nothing at all). Behind our house is nothing but marshland, so the night is filled with frogs, crickets, and other strange sub-tropical marsh sounds. So far we have seen armadillos (a big herd of them came trotting by last night while we were sitting outside), black racers snakes (lots of em’ but our friend Snoop, a fiberglass guy we found here who is helping us glass all the new stuff we built, says they are territorial and keep rattlesnakes away), tortoises, lizards, frogs, alligators (outside WalMart in the run-off pools), dolphins, manatee s, eagles, deer…and we haven’t even set off yet!
Nick’s guitar and acoustic bass arrived in the mail from home today, so we now have two guitars, a bass, and a harmonica! Music… what a fantastic way for us to develop connections with the people we are going to meet; playing music together has been a bonding experience among us as I hope it will be between us and those we encounter along our journey. After dinner, before I went off to go do email, we sat around for a while playing 12-bar blues—so far, we can rebuild a boat together and play music together; I can’t wait till we do our first clinic together! When they pulled me up the mast for the first time the other day when we were working on the rigging, from up there everyone on deck keeping me safe, raising and lowering gear and running lines like a maypole looked like one animal with many parts, moving as a team…adaptable yet adapting together.
Going up the mast was the very first activity that had required ALL of us on that task in different roles at the same time, with serious potential consequences, and watching everyone do everything needed with speed and purpose made me feel a surge of trust in everyone here. I really don’t know how I got so lucky in everyone here, except that many people here have survived at least one occurrence of Life Happening, and the kind of people who gravitate towards service to others when they have experienced pain (instead of turning inward and self pitying) are, I suppose, the kind of people who are kind, thoughtful of others, creative, self-motivated, compassionate, hardworking, and of course funny! My dad got to meet Mother Theresa when he worked in her Home for the Dying in Calcutta and said she has a terrific sense of humor; after all, if you can’t laugh at yourself or at life, you’ll be a very, very unhappy person!
Our house is in the canal system in Palm Coast, only couple of hundred feet down the road from our boat, and some of the houses have their own dock on the canal. Our boat, the Southern Wind, is at a dock behind the home of the previous owners, Dennis and Jeannette. They have allowed us to do major construction every day behind their house, let us use all their tools and extra equipment, told us how to do a lot of the repair (a lot of it was stuff we were doing for the first time! I can’t believe Sky knows how to frame, epoxy, fiberglass, paint acid on metal to prepare it for painting, and generally do boatbuilding!), driven me around for hours showing me where to find the marine yard, chandlery, welding shop, Home Depot and all the other places we need to find to get our boat ready!
All the neighbors have been very kind as well; only once have any of the neighbors asked us to desist—you see, we tend to forget what day it is (time has no meaning when you are working as hard as you can all day, every day) and one Sunday at 7:00 PM we were using (simultaneously) an electric planer, a circular saws and a chopsaw, 2 drills, and a metal grinding wheel. Did I mention that these folks have their backyard and dock directly across the canal entrance from us—about 100 feet away? Serious remorse was felt when he very politely reminded me what day and what time it was. We packed up our tools and took off!
The community itself has received us really well, too—my sister says she can’t get over how good the customer service is; we have also made a lot of friends down at the local Home Depot (since we go THERE about every other day). In fact, the radio interview Sky and I did here on WNZF on June 1st was due to Jon at Home Depot, who (after hearing about our project) put us in touch with David Ayres at WNZF who interviewed us on the air about Floating Doctors.
So I have a sturdy, large sailboat, all the medical supplies Direct Relief International provided, and an absolutely AMAZING crew of remarkable individuals who I not only like, but to whom I have already lite rally trusted my life more than once. I feel absolutely confident; everyone’s attitude is so positive, everyone pitches in to work SO hard all day every day…every hard or dirty job has no shortage of willing hands to tackle it. After almost exactly a year since we even started to organize this mission and gain support, we are making it happen! Everyone who comes to see the boat thinks we have been working on it for 6 months because so much has been accomplished in the 6 weeks we have been here! Every day the boat takes a huge stride forward towards being done!
It is getting pretty late and we have to be up in 6 hours to head down to the boat, so I’ll pick this up tomorrow. I was chatting with my mom earlier this evening (she has been our biggest supporter, she is even helping develop and manage our website at the moment!) I think Sky is making a frittata with all our leftover vegetables and she makes the BEST frittata! I need to find an 8-inch peeler log to make a conical plug to fit the raw seawater intake pipe underneath the boat (I’ll hammer it in with a mallet from underneath, good thing one scuba tank I brought happens to be full); then we can remove the frozen (open) valve on that pipe inside the engine room (without seawater flooding into the engine room) and weld a new valve and a filter in its place. Plus we have a list of about 30 job s we are tackling tomorrow. AND we have GOT to find out what keeps biting Ryan when he is sleeping! He is BATHING in insect repellent, none of us are using it, and he is just getting mauled by something!
Just another day!
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.
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