Dr. Ben is floating around L.A. these days, so to speak, and reaching out via the Internet in a land-locked effort to win the hearts of America.
He's not on a mission to save souls. He's out there to save lives.
His full name is Dr. Benjamin LaBrot and he's the creator and driving force behind Floating Doctors, a group of medical experts, sailors, equipment operators and volunteers cruising through Latin America to inoculate, treat, cure-and to build medical facilities for those who need them.
In the three years that his group has existed, its members, including Ben's sister, Sky, and his fiancée, Karine, have treated some 16,000 patients from Panama to Haiti, moving through the Caribbean aboard a 76-foot converted fishing boat named the Southern Wind.
They've treated everything from monkey bites to meningitis and built or helped build clinics and schools wherever they've gone. All has been done with funds gathered through grants and individual donations. Strictly a non-profit effort, It hasn't cost any of their patients so much as a peso.
Dr. Ben is moving through L.A. these days like a ship at sea. He's looking for volunteers with specific talents and enough backing to keep the whole operation going. At any one time, from 15 to 25 of those aboard the Southern Wind are volunteers from all over the world. Interested? You can apply online at Floating Doctors.
I've known Ben for years. He lives up the block in our Santa Monica Mountains village of Topanga. His father, George, is also a medical doctor, and his mother, Paula, a writer, teacher and deeply compassionate person-all traits instilled in their kids before they were out of their teens.
Ultimately, Ben wants to take Floating Doctors on to Africa, where he has already traveled, to help treat the diseases rampant among many of the peoples from desert to jungle. But it takes support.
L.A., as you might imagine, is the capital of hustle, and it's tough getting anyone's attention amid a skeptical population. But Ben's passion for his cause and the history of his work speak for themselves; and there's nothing self-serving in either category. He wants the people involved in exporting not swords but medications, building not bunkers but clinics.
At age 36, he sees the rest of his life dedicated to what all doctors ought to be doing. There are perils, including the sea itself, which more than once has battered the Southern Wind with towering waves and streaks of lightning in storms that could have ended Dr. Ben's mission in an instant. But, like Columbus, he sailed on.
"This is the hardest thing I have ever done," he said to me one day. Then he added thoughtfully, "And the greatest thing I have ever done."
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