As I was about to leave my office last night, I noticed I had a pile of newspapers on the floor. They were from the last few days, and I thought I’d flick through them to see if there was anything I missed, and then throw them away on my way out. The New York Times, as usual, had little of interest to say, but I chanced upon the obituaries—I don’t usually read them, because I don’t care for death—and noticed someone interesting: Stan Brock, an ex-Englishman described as an “Intrepid Provider of Health Care in Remote Areas” had died at 82. I began to give it a skim.
Then, reading through Brock’s obituary, I steadily realized that he might have had one of the greatest lives of any human being.
Brock is described as a “former British cowboy and co-host of the long-running television show ‘Wild Kingdom.'” Born in England, he moved to South America as a teenager. Here is how the first part of his life is described:
Mr. Brock became a cowboy in British Guiana. There, from 1952 to 1968, he was the manager of the 4,000-square-mile Dadanwa Ranch, once the world’s largest cattle station, with 30,000 Longhorn cattle and horses. His other books, including “Leemo: A True Story of a Man’s Friendship With a Mountain Lion” (1967), brought him to the attention of a BBC filmmaker. He was then invited to join “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom,” the Emmy Award-winning NBC series, as a co-host with Marlin Perkins in the late 1960s. He appeared on the program for more than a decade. He also appeared in an American sitcom, “The Corner Bar,” and acted in several adventure films, including “Escape From Angola” in 1976 and “Galyon” in 1980.
Already, then, an adventurer who got to be a cowboy, host a nature show with 32 million viewers, act in movies, and befriend a mountain lion. Here he is lassoing a buffalo. Here he lassos an anaconda. Here he is outrunning a goddamn grizzly bear. At one point he also seems to have wrestled a jaguar. (He did all of this barefoot.) And then we get:
He was credited with discovering a rare species of bat, which was named for him, Vampyressa brocki. He was also a pilot, which enabled him to reach remote areas, and held a black belt in taekwondo.
Ok, so discovered a bat, skilled in martial arts, flew planes around the world. But here’s where Stan Brock’s life gets really interesting: In the early 1980s, he quit the world of TV and movies entirely. He founded an organization called “Remote Area Medical” that brought free medical care to underserved areas all across the U.S. With no government or corporate funding, Brock and RAM managed to treat hundreds of thousands of people who couldn’t afford the high cost of American medical care. In 2014, the Independent described the operation:
Brock has now organised more than 700 free clinics in convention centres and football stadiums. More than 80,000 volunteer doctors and nurses have provided free, basic, but sometimes life-saving healthcare worth more than £50m to more than half a million Americans, a fraction of a population who cannot afford to be treated or insured. Whole families queue, sometimes for days. This Thanksgiving, RAM, which has seven donated aircraft, will fly 100 dental chairs, 30 lanes of opticians and a small army of heart, women’s health and other specialists to a convention centre in New York City.
The New York Times noted the scale of the logistics involved at the events Brock organized:
About 1,400 health professionals volunteered to treat 2,300 people who showed up at one of RAM’s outdoor clinics at the fairgrounds in the western Virginia town of Wise. Some had camped out for three days to make sure they would be treated.
By 2018, after more than 30 years, Brock’s organization had delivered more than $120 million worth of free health care services. He “was instrumental in the passage of the Tennessee Volunteer Medical Services Act of 1995, which allows health professionals with out-of-state licenses to cross state lines and provide free care.” Brock was also an animal-lover, and in addition to its more than 700,000 human patients the organization had treated more than 67,000 animals. (The difficulty many people have paying veterinary bills is rarely discussed, perhaps because people think of pets as luxuries, even though that’s absolutely not the case.)
Brock was highly critical of the U.S. healthcare system, noting that people in Detroit and Chicago often had no more chance of seeing a doctor than people in the remote Amazon tribes he once worked with, who were 26 days on foot from the nearest physician. “You could be blindfolded and stick a pin on a map of America and you will find people in need,” he said. “We’ve never gone anywhere in the US where there wasn’t a big turnout. Only the geography is different. They’re all there to see the dentists, they’re all there to see the optician. And even if they don’t know it because they’re so preoccupied by the pain in their teeth, they all need to see the doctor, too.”
Brock was, by all accounts, indefatigable. He received no compensation, had almost no personal life, few possessions, and devoted himself completely to the work he loved. Stan Brock didn’t seek the limelight, though. He didn’t put the attention on himself, he put it on the work. (When the New York Times published a long report about a Remote Area Medical event, Brock’s name didn’t even appear in the article.) I was reminded how much good work is done by humble, selfless people who don’t seek or find recognition. Whenever you see prominent people being praised for their good deeds, remember how many nameless others aren’t being feted, because they’re busy out there doing the work.
I didn’t know Stan Brock’s name before I picked up his obituary. But I knew his work: I’d seen news stories about these roving medical clinics going around America serving poor people. I didn’t think about where they came from, who put them together, how they actually came to be. Brock is worth reading about, and remembering, in part because he shows us that when people decide to live their lives well, they can do extraordinary things for others.
A funny thought popped into my mind when I was reading about Brock. Chuck Norris’ name has become synonymous with exaggerated superhuman feats. But Chuck Norris is a nasty reactionary who supported Roy Moore and Proposition 8. He does philanthropy, which is good, but it’s also easy. You write checks, people tell you you’re wonderful. You know what’s much harder? Organizing something on the ground, trying to help people yourself with hardly any resources. That takes real strength. So I think that the name we should use when we want to refer to a “real-life superhero” is Stan Brock.
Brock offers a model of how to live a “good” life, in every sense of that word. It had no shortage of fun and adventure, but he also cared about others and loved helping them, and didn’t seek any credit for doing so. Thanks to him, hundreds of thousands of people have received medical treatment who otherwise wouldn’t have. Stan Brock’s 82 years were what I call a life well-lived.
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