Saint Stan

Here he is. Saint Stan.

Yesterday I would never have remembered hearing his name, although I suppose one time long ago I may have seen him on TV. But while rummaging around on the net early this morning to find information for a blog entry I was planning, I stumbled on his story. And it was so amazing I decided to postpone the entry I was planning and share that story.

I suppose I could rewrite some of it in my own words, but the following story from the Times of London Online by journalist Ariel Leve contains such poignant detail that I don’t want to risk watering it down. So I’m going to present it just as it touched me this morning. This is only an excerpt of a much longer article. May it touch your heart as it did mine, and perhaps inspire you to want to do more than you thought you could in your little corner of the world.

April 5, 2009

Saint Stan Brock: Who are you?

By Ariel Leve

This man has come to the rescue of nearly 200,000 poor Americans who can’t afford to see a doctor. So who is Stan Brock — and why has a penniless 72-year-old Brit devoted his life to solving the US healthcare crisis? Photographs by Jonathan Torgovnik

Ariel Leve

It’s nearly 6am on a Saturday in early February and pitch-black on the fringes of the Smoky Mountains in Knoxville, Tennessee. A tall, lean man with thick grey hair in a weathered leather bomber jacket and khaki uniform strides over to the metal gate where a crowd has gathered. Hundreds of people, shivering and wrapped in blankets, push gently forward, each clutching a tiny paper ticket.

Some are elderly. Some have teeth chattering and are aching so badly that they can barely stand. Most have slept in their cars. The man before them is about to call out numbers. He will provide assistance. He will end their suffering.

“Okay, folks,” he shouts, his breath visible in the frigid air, “we’re going to bring in the first 50.”

He stands bone-straight, hands clasped behind him. A British voice, sonorous and genial, silences the crowd. He begins calling out numbers. One by one they step forward. Through the open gate, up the small paved hill and into the building. They move at different paces. A few are limping, others are skipping, and one woman in her twenties and wearing flannel pyjama bottoms and bootee slippers is jumping for joy as she races indoors. They have not won something. Nor are they the first to arrive for a concert or a state fair. They are excited because soon they will have the chance to see a doctor, a dentist or an ophthalmologist. All they have been given is the opportunity to have their basic healthcare needs met. No payment necessary. No questions asked.

For the next two days, the Jacobs building will house the 561st Remote Area Medical (Ram) expedition. In just a few short hours its empty structure will be transformed into a mammoth field hospital.

Less than 24 hours earlier, the Ram trucks arrived with medical supplies. Dental chairs, sterilising machines, auto-refractors and eye charts, everything from the silver for fillings to wooden tongue depressors. Volunteers began unpacking boxes of sterile gloves, opening crates of cotton wool and paper gowns, delineating sections for eye clinics and examination rooms. Hundreds of volunteers, thousands of dollars of equipment — all of it donated.

Stan Brock is the man overseeing the operation. He founded the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps, a non-profit-making organisation, in 1985, but he had the idea when he lived in the Amazon in the 1950s. He has carried out medical relief missions all over the world, but increasingly his focus has been on the poorest Americans.

So who is this British man, living in the middle of the Bible Belt in Tennessee and trying to solve America’s healthcare crisis? It might be a temporary fix, but he is driven by those in desperate need, and his devotion is paying off. How did he become a hero for so many?

The Ram headquarters operates out of a 37,000-square-foot schoolhouse that Brock leases from the city of Knoxville for $1 a year. This is his home. On Friday morning, the day before this year’s event is due to start, Brock shows me round. The plaster is peeling off the walls, it is damp and cold, and many of the volunteers work in parkas. We walk through the schoolhouse as Brock, still fit and strong in his seventies, leads the way to a classroom where we’ll sit and talk. This is the only time I see him seated for the next 48 hours.

Brock was born in Lancashire in 1936 and grew up mainly in South Wales and along the south coast of England. He had been given a scholarship to the Canford school in Dorset, but dropped out at 16 to join his mother and father, a civil servant who had been posted to British Guiana on the northern coast of South America — now known as Guyana.

His life story unfolds like an action-packed western where Brock is the hero. For the next 15 years he lived as a cowboy with the Wapishana Indians on Dadanawa ranch in the Amazon. It was during this time that he was inspired to start a volunteer medical-relief corps that would bring free healthcare to people who were poor and isolated.

In the US, Brock is remembered as the star of Wild Kingdom, a popular TV series about wildlife conservation that began in the late 1960s. Off the back of this, Brock starred in a few films in the 1970s that were low on plot but packed with animals. There are fading posters on the wall from Escape from Angola and Forgotten Wilderness. On this poster, Brock is pictured in a swamp wrestling a real anaconda. Also hanging on the wall is Brock’s tae-kwon-do black belt and several framed photographs — he looks more at ease in the ones with lion cubs than in those with humans. He was often referred to as “the original crocodile hunter”.

Forty years later, his adventurous spirit is still thriving. Part James Bond, part Gandhi, he moves with purposeful velocity. He seems incapable of wasting time. And because he has, as he says, “no dependants”, he is utterly, passionately committed to Ram. He needs very little. Brock sleeps on the floor on a mat, and his main companion is a stray dog, Rambeau, who is now blind. Until six months ago, the two of them showered outside in the courtyard with a hose, but when the temperatures dipped below freezing, ice cubes came out of the nozzle, so an indoor shower has been installed. There is no hot water? “No,” he says, recoiling. “Hot water is bad for you.” Brock does not take a salary and has no income. “I am here 365 days a year, all day, every year.” All of his money has gone into the organisation. He has no car, no house, no possessions, no bank account. He was sending in tax returns with “zero” under income for so long, the IRS (Internal Revenue Service) informed him it wasn’t necessary for him to file. “This is all I do. I do not need money. I had oatmeal to eat this morning and one of the volunteers brought the oatmeal.”

He laughingly admits he has taken a vow of poverty. He does not go to restaurants because he’s not able to pay the bill, and he doesn’t miss it. He lives on a diet of rice, beans, fruit and oatmeal, and only occasionally protein, such as a can of tuna. The only beverages he drinks are water and 100% fruit juice. He has never had a fizzy drink.

Every day, sometimes waking up at 4am, he does two hours of exercise — tae kwon do, 600 sit-ups, and running, but only on a soft surface. He will ride his bicycle out to the local airport or soccer field and run around on the grass.

Personal details are hard to pin down. There is brief mention of a marriage, which, he says protectively, “didn’t work out”. He has no children, and later I discover his marriage lasted for 12 years. His family is his work — and the volunteers he surrounds himself with. Twelve years ago the operation became so large and complicated that Brock had to begin paying some of the volunteers. Jean Jolly will be 74 in August and has been with Ram for the past 15 years. Her salary is about $1,000 a month, and since she retired in 2004 from work at Talbots, a retail-clothing store, she is now the full-time volunteer co-ordinator; the engine that keeps everything running smoothly.

“We are the only nongovernmental charitable organisation in the United States that offers free dental, free visual, free medical, without any restrictions or questions asked,” she says proudly.

There are two separate entities. The Ram Foundation is the fundraising and administrative arm of the organisation, managing the private donations that underpin the work, with two full-time and five part-time employees. Then there is the Ram Volunteer Corps, which organises the expeditions and field operations, record-keeping and statistical information. Brock is chairman of both.

Last year, Ram was profiled on the American news programme 60 Minutes. Up until then, the annual budget had been about $250,000. And Ram had directed 94% to 96% of unrestricted funds to programme services, and spent between 4% and 6% on administration and overheads. But now, thanks to that exposure, the annual budget will be $1.9m. All donations and grants are from private donors and family foundations — no government money, no taxpayer money, no corporate funding. So what does that $1.9m cover? $595,000 of it was spent on an aeroplane, part of Ram’s mandate to take advanced surgical teams to communities that have never had a clinic before. It will fly a surgical team to Guyana a few times a year. There will also be a tractor-trailer rig outfitted as a self-contained mobile medical unit — to travel across America.

Twelve clinics are scheduled a year, but it usually ends up doing twice that. Some of those are one-day clinics offering one-day screenings, and so on. In the US it has expeditions scheduled in Kentucky, Virginia, Ohio and many more in Tennessee.

For this weekend’s event, Ram will spend between $2,500 and $3,000 on supplies and $500 on fuel (since it is so close to home). The estimate for the entire weekend is $4,000.

The reason for this low figure is that nobody gets paid. Everyone who has travelled has done so at his or her own cost. All volunteers cover their own food and lodging. There are no expenses.

By the end of the weekend there will have been 570 volunteers — including 36 dentists, 25 hygienists, 12 opticians, four optometrists, and three ophthalmologists. There will be nurse practitioners and dental students and those who have shown up to make coffee and offer administrative support. There will be people like Dr Joseph Smiddy, a pulmonologist who went to truck-driving school and got his licence as a truck driver in order to drive his 18-wheeler customised x-ray unit and mobile clinic.

There will be volunteers who have travelled at their own expense from 15 states — including Marta Flood, a nurse practitioner who drove eight hours from Cleveland, Ohio, and Moira Stangeland, a nurse from Los Angeles. When they first arrive they will be overwhelmed, unsure what to expect, and by the end they will have become friends, with plans to meet up again for a future Ram event.

There will have been 911 patients registered — some who have driven from nearby states like Georgia, Kentucky and Texas. Of those registered, 13.4% said they earned less than $5,000 a year, while 73.8% refused to answer the question about income; 88% of patients were in the 21-64 age group; 70% were Caucasian, 22% African-American, 9.4% Hispanic; 61% are unemployed and 61.5% have no health insurance. At the end of this event, 1,538 services will have been provided; many patients will receive more than one service. There will be 424 pairs of spectacles made, 26 mammograms, and 904 teeth extracted. The value of care will total $189,290.

By 9.30pm on Friday, all that can be seen is a serpentine row of headlights set against the endless blackened sky as people arrive and wait. Tickets are distributed by the Tennessee State Guard on a first-come, first-served basis. People are told they will be allowed to return tomorrow at 5am — as a safeguard to prevent carbon-monoxide poisoning from running car heaters all night. But those who have driven for hours choose to stay overnight in the car park rather than risk losing their spot. They can’t afford a motel.

Ida Stanford is on a fixed income. She is number 9. She’s worried if she’s not here when her number is called she will be passed over. She has problems with her eyesight and needs a new pair of glasses. Darrell Ledford is number 69. He is disabled — having suffered a spinal injury — and here to see if he can get 14 teeth extracted. He is in excruciating pain. His jaw is swollen to the size of a grapefruit. If Ram weren’t available he would have no choice but to do what he’s done all year: lie at home with a toothache. A small heater is on the passenger seat next to him in the truck. Will he stay out here all night? “Yes, ma’am,” he replies. “It’s rough. My teeth hurt real bad. I’d sleep out here three nights if I had to.”

Tony Blake is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran who has walked from his house down the road to get his ticket. The Veterans Health Administration provides him with his blood-pressure medicines, but he says they don’t do a lot of dental care unless you’re about to be deployed. He was a construction surveyor in the army, but can’t find employment. He talks for a while about the veterans and how they are treated when they come back. He is angry. “I served 15 years in the military. I spent 15 years as a firefighter. Pretty much my whole life has been in service — for my country or as a civil servant. I’ve been all over the world. I free people from oppression, and I’m more oppressed in my own country than the people I free.”

Tony is going to walk home and return at 5am. He needs some fillings done and his teeth cleaned. When asked what he would do if he didn’t have Ram, he shrugs. “I’d suffer.”

At 11pm, the volunteers are still inside and focused on being ready for the morning. Brock stands over a rubbish bin peeling an orange — this and a banana will be his dinner before he goes back outside to see how it’s going and make sure nobody has passed out in their car. He will spend the night in a camper van in the car park — the van has been lent to him for the next two days by Laurie and John Osborn. They’ve been involved with Ram since 1992, and John, a dentist, is now the dental director.

When Laurie shows Brock how the thermostat works and asks how he likes it, he looks baffled. “Whatever’s normal,” he says. There is a double bed, but he chooses to sleep on the floor. He’ll be up at 4am so that the gates open promptly at 6.

The sun has only been up for a few hours and already hundreds of people have been treated. Everyone here has a sad story. When I meet Brandi Devine, 33, she is in tears. Her husband, Shane, helps walk her over to the stairwell so she can rest. She has just had five teeth pulled and she is dazed from the pain. Shane says she has lived in agony for months. They are from a small rural town 40 miles away called Tellico Plains. They arrived at 7.30pm on Friday and slept in the car. They look worn out.

Being unable to help ease his wife’s pain has taken its toll. “I felt like half a person,” Shane says, stroking her hair.

Neither of them has health insurance.

Five years ago, his wife developed an infection that caused the enamel in her mouth to deteriorate badly. They have been married for nine years and have a three-year-old. He had been working as many shifts as possible at the foundry but is now unemployed. He is relieved his wife can eat something now besides soup. “This has saved our marriage,” he says.

Dr Joseph Gambacorta is a dentist who has driven 300 miles from Buffalo, New York, with his 13-year-old son, Patrick. He has been pulling teeth nonstop for four hours. “The American system is not working,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are working middle class and can’t afford the co-pay or the deductible.”

**********

There is much more to the story of Stan in the original Times of London article, which can now be read on the website of author Ariel Leve.

You can find out more details about his many projects, and see a short video of him in person, on  the RAM website.

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One Response to Saint Stan

  1. Pingback: Saint Stan | Currently StaRRing …

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