careers for doctors

Floating Doctors: An Interview with Dr Ben LaBrot

Photo taken with permission from Floating Doctors

Photo taken with permission from Floating Doctors

“My high school counselor never told me these kind of jobs existed”
- Dr Ben LaBrot on Floating Doctors.

Floating Doctors is a not-for-profit organisation that has been sailing into various destinations in the Caribbean providing medical relief to the people who need it most. Starting in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, then working in Honduras, it is now largely focused on the beautiful Panama and its surrounding islands, providing medical assistance to the local indigenous communities.

Dr Ben LaBrot, founder of Floating Doctors and Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California, is pretty much the personification of the attitude and philosophy that Lifestyle Medics espouses. Ben’s managed to maintain his enthusiasm and excitement for work by tearing up the rule book and creating his own exhilarating path in Medicine.

By combining his love for the Ocean and experience sailing with his medical knowledge, he’s built a fulfilling and hugely impactful career. Whether you’re interested in humanitarian work or not, his example of leading an ‘alternative career in medicine’ is inspiring and his passion is contagious.

It hasn’t always been plain sailing for Ben and Floating Doctors. Their first vessel was an out-of-service old boat that had been submerged underwater for some time. It was repaired and rebuilt until it met the required standards and Ben was almost ready to start his first mission when the horrendous 2010 Haiti earthquake struck. The team then decided to set sail for Haiti.

“We had spent our last few dollars on a gallon of milk for the journey but our boat had to pay $700 dollars of fees to leave the dock, and if we stayed a day longer we would have to pay another months’ worth… we had exhausted all possible avenues of funding and didn’t know what to do”.

So the first voyage was almost a failure before it had begun but then a stranger on a nearby boat in the dock approached them and said “I’ve heard you’re going to Haiti, here take $800, it’s all I could get from the ATM but do what you can with it”.

Ben said he has since tried to find out who the man was so he could thank him again and explain the significance of his generosity which ultimately led to where Floating Doctors is today, but he’s had no luck yet.

Although the initial voyage sounds spontaneous, Ben is acutely aware of the importance of properly planning a mission and avoiding falling into the trap of ‘medical tourism’ – a type of international aid that often leads to worse outcomes for locals. He ensures that Floating Doctors is up to date with all the latest evidence on effectively providing medical relief and involves international experts and works closely with local, home-grown, physicians.

Today, Ben has a large team working on Floating Doctors and due to the success of the organisation he’s had to take a slight step back from doing purely hands-on clinical work and has taken more administrative work. He was surprised to find this part of the job equally stimulating – his focus is now on the future of the organisation and on how to turn further aspects of his imagination into reality.  

Floating Doctors

Bathing after clinic on an overnight deployment.

I asked Ben if he had any advice for doctors feeling fed-up or considering career-alternatives, he strongly urged everyone to take a medical trip overseas and if it hits the spot, then keep pursuing it. “There’s a much wider variety of work than I could have ever imagined and the life and career opportunities are genuinely unlimited”. Some of the opportunities that have found Ben include becoming a professor at the University of South California where he lectures about international aid and tropical medicine.
One opportunity Ben experienced that I’m particularly jealous of is speeding through the Jungle in a helicopter – BELOW the canopy, dodging trees – flown by an ex-military helicopter pilot, to provide medical relief in a difficult to access location.

When we discussed whether Ben had ever suffered burnout, he tried his best to find an example to oblige me but I could tell he was genuinely struggle to find an example – it was the only point in our chat where Ben was briefly quiet and not overflowing with stories and ideas. Eventually, he side-stepped the question somewhat and gave me an anecdote about a friend of his instead. This isn’t a coincidence, considering the career and life he’s leading.

That’s not to say his work hasn’t been incredibly challenging and stressful at times (try running out of money completely, being stranded on a reef in Honduras in pitch darkness or treating victims of gang violence and child sex trafficking in Central America) but the amount of excitement, autonomy and novelty means he’s unlikely to ever feel unfulfilled by his work.

All photos taken with permission from Floating Doctors.