At 80, Stan Brock Shows No Sign of Slowing His Effort to Save Lives With Remote Area Medical

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You’d be hard pressed to find Stan Brock somewhere else besides the 55,000-square-foot campus of Remote Area Medical headquarters in Rockford near Old Knoxville Highway. If he’s not here in East Tennessee, he’s likely out somewhere offering help—Guyana, Haiti, Baton Rouge, or some hollow in rural Appalachia—directing the latest batch of volunteers on a disaster relief mission, or helping lead pop-up clinics to provide free medical care to America’s uninsured.

Today, he’s in the corner parking lot of RAM HQ in his trademark safari gear, matching khaki pants and shirt, with RAM logos fixed above his breast pockets and on his shoulder straps. His silver hair is slicked back and well manicured, accenting the imposing demeanor he was known for as co-host of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom in the 1960s. He’s looking over a newly purchased pull-behind trailer, one RAM volunteers will help retrofit to serve as a mobile command center during future disaster-relief operations, like the one volunteers are at now in Baton Rouge after flood water inundated parts of the city and some surrounding parishes.

Well, the dingy camper isn’t new. It’s dirty and a little rundown and covered in dents and dings from a hailstorm—blemishes that allowed the penny-pinching nonprofit to purchase it second-hand for a steal, Brock says.

“We’re still running this place on a shoestring, for the size of this operation, which is the biggest of its kind in America,” he says with a hefty British drawl. It’s been more than 60 years since Brock has lived in the United Kingdom, but he’s not one to forget where he came from, or the lessons he’s learned along the way.

For the past three decades, Brock has devoted most every waking hour to helping RAM and its mission; from navigating red tape and regulations, to get volunteers on the ground, to volunteering himself and coordinating its latest relief efforts. Yet he still makes time to talk with the media, seeing it as mission-critical to get the word out and hopefully move people to open their wallets. Virtually all the organization’s funding comes from individuals who believe in its mission—small donations of $5, $20, $50. In 2014, those types of contributions made up 96 percent of its budget, state records show. It takes no money from the government.

Brock has managed to take an abstract idea to offer medical help and turn it into a multi-million-dollar relief operation, although he’s quick to duck credit for such a thing, instead pointing to the thousands of men and women, medical doctors and dentists and others, who have volunteered time and energy over the years, or donated money, to help those in need. RAM’s operating budget fluctuates year-to-year depending on when different disasters strike and what sorts of relief efforts may be needed, but it generally tops more than $1 million, Secretary of State filings show.

“What is this, mission 810?” Brock asks a volunteer as they prepare for a weekend medical clinic in Macon County, Tenn. in late August. They’ll roll in with a convoy of trucks, setting up an impromptu complex offering medical, dental, and vision services for two days, treating as many people as they can. Just this past weekend, on Sept. 10-11, they were at it again, this time in Lee County, Va. Next weekend they’ll be in Pickett County, Tenn. doing the same thing, and then to Lyon County, Nev. the weekend after that.

Now in his 80th year, Brock shows no signs of slowing down. All conversations circle back to RAM and its mission, and where he hopes to see things go from here. He seems reticent to open up about his personal life—but RAM is a cause he’s devoted much of his life to, and one that defines him. He has no hobbies other than fitness. He still wakes up early and works out seven days a week, he says, refusing to eat many processed foods. He has an interest in airplanes and horses, two things that have defined him as a cowboy and philanthropist. With a small administrative staff handling RAM’s day-to-day operations, Brock has the freedom and ambition to focus on plans for the future—and boy does he have more in the works.

RAM has just started a horse breeding program, is hosting 4,000 Boy Scouts for a massive camporee in October on its 200-acre property near Blaine, is mounting yet another operation to help out in Baton Rouge, is expanding its footprint in the Philippines, and is lobbying for changes in federal law to cut red tape and make its relief efforts easier.

It may sound like a plethora of focus areas for one nonprofit, but don’t be so sure. All of these endeavors have a common thread, even if at times it’s Brock himself and his laser-focus on doing good in the world. But to really understand where the organization is heading, it’s important to understand its origins and the makings of its founding philanthropist. Now with a full-time staff, RAM may be poised to carry on the work Brock has dedicated himself to. But it’s hard not to wonder what might become of the nonprofit after its charismatic celebrity benefactor, who has been its public face for decades, is gone.

Remote Area Medical founder Stan Brock thumbs through an assortment of prescription lens at the nonprofit's headquarters in Rockford, Tenn.Clay Duda

Remote Area Medical founder Stan Brock thumbs through an assortment of prescription lens at the nonprofit’s headquarters in Rockford, Tenn.

From Rupununi to Tennessee

Remote Area Medical got its start in 1985 with a trip to the Rupununi Savannah, a vast plain along Guyana’s border with Brazil in the northern stretches of South America. For Brock, it was a sort of homecoming. He had spent 15 years of his early life playing cowboy on this desolate range, working as a vaquero on one of the world’s largest cattle operations, on the Dadanawa Ranch, where All the Cowboys Were Indians—except for him, of course—as the title of his most recent book reminds.

When he originally showed up at Dadanawa in 1953 he was a British expat, a 17-year-old school boy who had hopped a ship for Guyana (then British Guiana, and English territory) with a dream of being a cowboy. His dad worked with the provincial government in Guyana’s capital of Georgetown, giving Brock a reason to make it in such a remote stretch of the world. And that’s exactly what he did, landing a job at the ranch and learning the ways of the range from local Wapishana Indians, who herded cattle barefoot by horseback.

From the Rupununi range it was, at the time, a 26-day journey to reach the nearest medical doctor in Georgetown—a disheartening fact Brock only came to realize after a near-fatal accident trying to tame a wild horse. He eventually recovered, though it was a wakeup call to the lack of medical access and what that means for people like the Wapishana, as well as others who live in rural enclaves around the world.

“I actually told that story to astronaut Ed Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the moon, a couple of years ago,” Brock recounts. “He said, ‘Gosh, I was on the moon and was only three days from the nearest doctor.’ I said, ‘Well, for those Indians where I grew up, they might as well have been on the moon with the opportunity they had to see a doctor.’ Then I came to this country [the United States] and there are millions of people in the same predicament!”

While working the ranch, Brock obtained his pilot’s license, number 92 issued by the British colonial government, he recalls. With it he ferried medical supplies and other goods to the ranch on a bi-weekly basis, a trip that had previously required pre-scheduled flights or nearly a month-long journey on foot from the coast. His work as a naturalist, animal collector, and wild game rustler eventually caught the eyes of the producers of Wild Kingdom, and they signed him on as a co-host in the 1960s. That work took him away from the range where he came of age, but he vowed to return one day, when he could, to help.

And that’s where the seeds of Remote Area Medical took hold. Brock went on to play a host of roles on television and film up through the mid-1980s, when he decided to shift gears and refocus on fulfilling his promise to the Wapishana. By then he found himself settling in Knoxville, a town he used to stop off at for fuel on trips between his home in Florida and the Wild Kingdom studios in Chicago, he says.

“Well, I was low on fuel, stopped here, and liked the place,” Brock says about ending up in Knoxville, offering little else for explanation. “RAM is based here because I was living here. But the strategic advantage is you have a huge population east of the Mississippi River. For us it’s only a couple of hours in one of our airplanes all the way up to the Northeast or down to Florida.”

Over the years it’s hosted missions to Guyana, Haiti, Mexico, Greece, and other international destinations. Even today it keeps a plane and pilot staffed in Guyana, with a network of nearly 40 remote airstrips to ferry remote villagers in need of medical attention free of charge, fulfilling the promise Brock made to himself all those years ago. But as that work got underfoot, Brock saw there was the same crisis happening here in the United States. While keeping its original focus, RAM expanded operations in the U.S., and today about 95 percent of its work is centered on helping those in need in one of the most developed nations on Earth.

He says 60 Minutes host Scott Pelley probably put it best in 2008, introducing RAM during a segment on the show that kick-started a flood of donations and national recognition for the organization: “Remote Area Medical sets up emergency clinics where the needs are greatest, but these days that’s not the Amazon. This charity founded to help people who can’t reach medical care now finds itself throwing America a life line.”

Rows upon rows of prescription eye glass lens line the shelves at the headquarters of Remote Area Medical in Rockford, Tenn.Clay Duda

Rows upon rows of prescription eye glass lens line the shelves at the headquarters of Remote Area Medical in Rockford, Tenn.

Full Steam Ahead

The numbers are staggering.

Last year alone RAM provided medical aid to 28,000 people, totaling about $92.5 million in free health-care services. It has amassed a fleet of seven airplanes, including “the big one,” a Douglas C-47 Skytrain that flew missions on D-Day during World War II, now stationed in Lethem, Guyana. Most of the other, smaller aircrafts are hangared at Knoxville’s Downtown Island Airport.

A patient without health insurance is fitted for dentures by a Remote Area Medical volunteer.Clay Duda

A patient without health insurance is fitted for dentures by a Remote Area Medical volunteer.

At RAM HQ, there are five box trucks and an 18-wheeler queued for upcoming medical missions. They are outfitted with dental chairs and equipment, phoropters for eye examines and glasses frames, scalpels and sterilizers. The trucks are flanked by shelves filled with such supplies, carts with a total of 138 dental chairs folded and labeled, racks upon racks of various prescription glass lenses, and pretty much every tool or instrument needed for their pop-up-style health-care operations. During clinics, it can produce about 400 prescription eyeglasses a day.

The warehouse itself is an impressive show of logistics, a scene of organized chaos as workers get each truck loaded, moving, and to its destination each weekend in a fashion that allows it to be unpacked and put to use. This is the type of operation RAM has become known for, taking over convention halls or stadiums or whatever building can accommodate a crowd for a weekend, treating as many people as they can, and moving on. Still, its efforts aren’t enough to reach everyone. Brock jokes grimly that it could take $10 million to straighten out Appalachia alone, not to mention the scores of other un- or under-insured people across the country.

Over the years, and with the addition of a small paid administrative staff, RAM has become well-versed at mounting such large-scale clinics, putting in place the framework for continued operations even without Brock’s charismatic candor. It’s also freed Brock to focus more on the organization’s future, expanding operations into other areas, and lobbying for revisions in federal law that would help streamline its work. He’d like to see a chapter in every state, and there already are some. It’s also in the process of boosting its operations in the Philippines.

One of the biggest issues is the number of state laws preventing doctors and dentists licensed in other states from crossing state lines to work. That’s a big challenge in the wake of a disaster. RAM must get waivers from individuals states to bring in help, costing time. Over the years, he’s managed to get 11 states to change those laws. Tennessee was the first, back in the mid-1990s, he says. But what would really help out is a federal law clearing those regulatory hurdles, allowing doctors and dentists to move freely between states.

One seemingly unlikely addition to its portfolio is a burgeoning horse breeding program. But for Brock, it makes perfect sense: It’s a renewed commitment to help the Wapishana make a living of the Rupununi Savannah. The 50,000 head of cattle he and other cowboys herded back in the 1950s and ’60s are long gone, stolen by Brazilian bandits, as Brock tells it. So are the horses the cowboy Indians once rode, dissipating a way of life he still holds dear.

That’s where the horses come in, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has plenty of them to spare. The federal agency is happy to provide wild mustangs to just about anyone willing to take them. There’s an estimated 33,000 wild horse roaming the United States, trampling the grasslands, and creating real problems, government figures show. RAM has already acquired four such mustang mares, which it plans to breed with a Lusitano stud to closely recreate the original horse brought to the Americas during the colonial days. Then, they’ll fly the offspring down to Guyana to help the Wapishana get back on their feet economically—that’s the plan at least, though it’s an ambitious one.

Brock had an earlier scheme to take 200 such mustangs from the BLM and ship them down to Guyana, but the logistics proved too cumbersome and costly, even for a Brit known for getting things done and thinking outside the box. He even considered driving them down through Central America—a prospect he says would have been possible in his early life, even if it would take about six months—but when you factor in all the freeways, fences, and border crossings, it proved too much, he says.

While RAM has not taken government grants in the past, Brock says he’d consider making an exception to fund what would likely be RAM’s biggest, most ambitious operation to date: a rolling, ongoing effort to vaccinate villages in Africa for malaria and Ebola, when and if those vaccines become available.

Brock envisions taking a small fleet of aircraft and a revolving crew of volunteers over the Atlantic, starting somewhere in Northwest Africa and going from there. The groups of volunteers would rotate on an ongoing basis, vaccinating entire villages, then packing up and moving on to the next.

“The airplane would fly from one dirt airstrip to another, where the airlines don’t go. The entire operation would last several years,” he says. “But that’s going to cost millions of dollars, so where would that money come from? It would have to come from either the United Nations, who is always short on money, or maybe U.S. AID [Agency for International Development].”

Whether Brock’s latest ambitions will ever materialize remains to be seen, but it won’t be from a lack of trying if not. He doesn’t take vacations, saying he has no time or need for such things, and he has no plans to retire or cut back his workload.

“Even though I was a barefoot cowboy, I’m going to die with my damn boots on,” he says. “If I even took a vacation, when I come back I’m flooded with emails. I wonder how many I have now… It says 7,878 emails, so I better get to work.”

Former Mercury staff reporter Clay Duda has covered gangs in New York, housing busts in Atlanta, and wildfires in Northern California. And lots of stuff about Knoxville.

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