Smile Squared's nonprofit partners distribute our donated toothbrushes around the world, allowing us to carry out our buy-one, give-one mission and help children in need improve their dental health. We are so thankful for all they do. And we are inspired by them.
We wanted to learn more about one of our newest partners, Floating Doctors, a medical mission team that brings medical supplies and treatment to remote countries via a 100-ton ship. While more than 80 percent of the world's population lives within 5 miles of a coast, Floating Doctors says many people still live in poverty without access to health care because of poorly charted waters, rugged terrain, political factors, social disenfranchisement, poor health knowledge, poverty and lack of infrastructure. Since 2011, more than 40,000 people have received care from Floating Doctors. Here's a brief Q & A (conducted via email) with the nonprofit medical mission team's founder, Dr. Benjamin LaBrot. See what he has to say about the importance of a "simple human kindness."
Q: Where in the world is Dr. LaBrot now?
A: I am currently in western Panama, working to develop a permanent, sustainable, mobile, remote rural health service for a huge region of jungle-covered mountain and mangrove mazes, inhabited primarily by the indigenous Ngabe-Bugle.
Q: Can you describe your last few days?
A: I just got back from a multi-day clinic to a remote community about 40 miles from here by small open boat, including a 6-mile section of open water that is notoriously treacherous. Our team treated more than 200 patients -- many of whom were returning patients coming for a health check or to have their chronic conditions monitored and treated, and some were new -- like the 3-year-old boy with the bulging meningocele sticking out of the back of his head that we need to connect with a neurosurgery service. We pulled about 85 teeth. We did ultrasounds on a dozen pregnant women. We sutured a machete wound on a little girl. Just another week.
Q: What impact has Floating Doctors had since you founded it in 2009?
A: There are people alive now that would not be so if not for the work of Floating Doctors' volunteers, and since our volunteers have come from more than a dozen countries, I like to think that at worst, they all took home with them a better understanding of emergent tropical diseases and developed confidence in their clinical practice skills, and at best, I hope they experienced dramatic renewal of purpose be being able to provide health care the way you probably imagined it would be like if you were a child dreaming about becoming a doctor. House calls are standard for us. If people in our target populations get sick or injured, they generally have two choices: to either just get better ... or not.
Q: You have chosen to deliver health care and medical supplies to isolated parts of the world -- often with great financial and physical challenges -- instead of working in private practice in relative comfort in the United States. Why?
A: I get to practice medicine that matters. My patients invite me into their homes and are happy to see me. I watch our volunteers grow and change lives through the power of simple kindness, and I get to see and experience things that no one will ever be able to take away from me. There are kids running around now of about 5 years old that I first "met" in utero when I ultrasounded their pregnant moms, and that I have looked after as they have grown, kids with heart defects or cleft palates that have been repaired, older people who can walk again after years trapped in bed ... Who's going to offer me a better job than that?! I'll skip the A/C and make do with a fan if it means I never have to worry if I'm wasting my life.
Q: Describe some of the illnesses and conditions you've encountered?
A: Worms and other parasites, machete wounds, malnutrition, dengue fever, STDs, HIV, poor pre-natal health, shark bites, infected sores, malaria, scabies, lightning strikes and fungal infections ...
Q: What wakes you up in the morning?
A: A.) Howler monkeys B.) My wife, who is a naturally early riser C.) Our cat D.) A frantic phone call because one of our boats may be filling with rain and sinking, or a patient needs an urgent assessment, or we are about to depart for a distant community and need to go load the boats. In a more metaphorical sense, really it is two things: One ... the level of need that actually exists. The second thing that gets me out of bed is knowing we have the power to do something -- ANYTHING -- to address the need, and that we have the power to grow and meet more need. And I guess there is a third thing, which is the continual adventure into the unknown -- both geographic and metaphorical -- that accompanies every day of all our lives, but is especially evident in this profession. You just never know what is coming next ... sometimes terrifying, almost always exciting.
Q: Is there anything you wish more people in first world countries knew about the people and places you've visited?
A: I wish they really understood what it means to not have access to care, to REALLY, viscerally understand the fear and helplessness of being at the top of a jungle mountain in a lightning storm and having to have your toe amputated by a visiting medical team because there literally is no other option. Conversely, I ALSO I wish they could truly understand how it feels to be lucky enough to be the instrument that changes another person's life.
Q: How would you describe the state of dental health among the adults and children you've encountered?
A: In a word: horrendous. It was a great moment when we finally could boast an ongoing dental service. Our dentist and another dentist volunteer pulled about 85 teeth in two days a couple weeks ago. Every year we give out about 10-15,000 toothbrushes [Smile Squared contributes toothbrushes to Floating Doctors], and also toothpaste and dental education. That's another odd thing about rural poverty. If you can't afford sugar or sugary things, or live too far from where soda is sold, you teeth are generally a whole lot better than the communities that have more money and/or more access to sugary foods. As soon as the communities get any financial wealth (relatively speaking), their teeth start to look awful.
Q: Any words of wisdom for people who would like to make a bigger impact on the world?
A: Never let anyone tell you can't. There is an old Chinese proverb: "Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the person doing it." I didn't know that what we are doing was impossible like so many people told us at the beginning. Our ignorance of what is possible allowed us to achieve many impossible things.
There is ALWAYS a way to help. Even when helping means just sitting with a dying patient and holding their hand so they are not alone, there is ALWAYS something you can do to help.
You will usually never know the moments in people's lives when the lightest touch may wither or heal them forever so we must strive to behave as though every moment was that moment for everyone around us. You would be surprised at how many people's calm faces can conceal an unimaginable typhoon of horror and inner hell unless you have ever been one of those people.
If you truly, TRULY love what you do, as long as you have enough to eat and a roof over your head, you can be happy. If you DON'T love what you do ... remember that one day you will (if you are lucky) be very old, and lying in a bed knowing the time for adventures and passions is long past, and knowing that you don't get to do it over again, and having to finally face whether you are satisfied or not. Regrets are terrible, terrible things.
Every time I give a patient medicine that may save his or her life, I know that somewhere in the world, someone took a moment out of their life to think of others, and to make the commitment to helping others. That keeps us afloat and ensures that our patients can receive the care they need. The ripples of a pebble of kindness tossed out into the ocean of the world reach far, far away, and are not dimmed or lessened in the slightest by the distances they travel in space and time.
The therapeutic value of simple human kindness is one of the most powerful tools in medicine, and it is universally understood across all cultures and language.
Thank you to Dr. LaBrot and to Floating Doctors and its commitment to helping improve the health of the poor and underserved. To learn more about supporting Floating Doctors or how you can volunteer with them in the field, please visit www.floatingdoctors.com and be sure to "like" Floating Doctors on Facebook at www.facebook.com/floating.doctors to see what's happening weekly.
To learn more about Smile Squared, visit www.smilesquared.com.
Photo courtesy of Dr. Benjamin LaBrot, courtesy of Floating Doctors.