‘Jono’ Bryant blends his taste for adventure and medical skills toward a greater good
It was a rather strange place to have a life-changing epiphany, but there he was, on the set of a British reality TV show in 2007, deep in the bowels of the Borneo jungles, when Jonathon Bryant found a purpose in life.
Set in some of the most remote jungles on the planet, “Adrenaline Junkie” was shooting its third series. Starring Jack Osbourne, son of the famous rocker Ozzy, and five tag-alongs, the show took viewers through the primitive Pacific island, encountering wild boar, bloodsucking leeches and the secluded people of the Penan, exotically adorned with drooping ear lobes, weighted earrings and body tattoos.
Bryant, an experienced jungle guide working with the show’s support crew, couldn’t have imagined a worse way to experience such a special landscape. Pampering high-maintenance pseudo celebrities from sun-up until sundown, hauling equipment through the jungle and realizing how the natives, whom he described as wholesome, friendly people, must have viewed the whole fiasco left a bad taste in his mouth.
“It was miserable really,” Bryant said. “I was pretty embarrassed about the whole situation.”
What he did take away from it was the blatant need for medical services in the remote part of the jungle, and thus was born his vow to help the Penan and show them all Westerners were not like Jack Osbourne and his crew.
Bryant returned to the States and put in motion his plan to return to Borneo, but this time on a medical mission to help the locals, not use them as porters and extras for reality television.
The name of that mission became MedicForce, a nonprofit Bryant now runs out of a small office in Bryson City. Bryant ventures into poor, remote, third-world regions of the globe with teams of volunteers amassed from all across the country. He went to Belize this winter and will head out for Kenya soon.
To support his philanthropic streak and his taste for exotic adventures, Bryant works as a SOLO wilderness medicine instructor through Nantahala Outdoor Center, based in the Nantahala Gorge. The job as a wilderness medical instructor with NOC is in fact what drew him to WNC in 2009.
Although originally from England, moved to the United States to study backcountry wilderness medicine at the SOLO campus in New Hampshire before transferring to the NOC campus, where he never quite left.
A steady girlfriend in Sylva, a wilderness medical school to manage, a non-profit to run — and all the mountain biking and kayaking he can fit into his free time — give him enough reasons to stick around. He also works part-time as a paramedic for Macon County.
A steady stream of students learning wilderness medical skills at the NOC gives Bryant plenty of young recruits for his growing organization, MedicForce. He couldn’t think of a better place to live, or better home base to run his non-profit.
But in 2008, the organization was still in its infancy. After his reality TV stint in the Borneo jungle, Bryant rallied a few of his EMT students in their early 20s to fly to back to the Pacific Island. As first-time, third-world medical relief workers, Bryant was still unclear on what they would exactly accomplish and how they would do it.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh gosh, how are we going to do this,’” Bryant said.
But he kept plodding forward with the plan to provide aid to the underprivileged.
Upon arriving in Borneo, the crew contracted a local doctor and a dentist, picked out a route into the jungle that had no roads, only foot trails, and set off.
Along the way, they encountered people who needed teeth pulled, because of the cavities and rot, cases of dysentery and malaria. Some of malaise the volunteers found was easily remedied with providing classes on proper mouth hygiene and hydration. While inadequate water intake in a tropical climate wreak havoc on kidneys and cause headaches, it can also have more serious ramifications.
A misconception Bryant discovered among some of the locals was that withholding water from a baby with dysentery was the correct manner to counteract the vomiting and diarrhea, when in fact that can be a death sentence for the child.
But the aid workers had to walk a fine line between teaching Western methods and not trampling on native knowledge.
“We were trying to help people, but we’re not trying to change their culture completely,” Bryant said.
During one tooth-brushing course, an elderly woman signaled to Bryant and led him into the woods. He followed her until they arrived at a plant. The woman dug up the plant’s root and began showing him how to brush his teeth with it.
The moment made him think to himself, “Oh, you stupid Westerner.”
While in Borneo, the crew also began administering more advanced medical classes in CPR, first aid, how to set bones and apply bandages to wounds. Bryant found that assisting a village medicine man, so to speak, with advanced medical training and support is one way to try to help advanced medical practice take root in the traditional culture well after his aid workers have left.
Bryant began to develop a philosophy that medical relief couldn’t just show up when it wanted to and then walk away when the volunteers had to go home — it needed to be something enduring. Out of that philosophy came the MedicForce’s true mission.
“The MedicForce philosophy came more along the lines of we’ll give you the training to help yourself,” Bryant said.
Bryant returned the following year to Borneo with a renewed vision and more direction. He brought with him another crew of willing volunteers and an experienced eye doctor. They stayed for three months, sleeping on hammocks and making walking sojourns deep into a jungle with tree trunks as big as a room, gigantic carnivorous plants, rhinoceros and pygmy elephants.
But among the diverse flora and fauna, they also encountered rampant eye problems. Some were born into a life of poor vision and had never had a visit from the eye doctor; others developed cataracts from sunlight reflecting off the water while working the flooded rice fields.
Bryant remembers the feeling of watching someone put on their first pair of prescription glasses, ever.
“Imagine to live your whole life and not be able to see, other than a blur,” Bryant said. “And, finally be able to see clearly, wow.”
They also encountered rotted teeth from sugar cane consumption, a lack of dental care and cases of scabies, a skin mite often found on bedding. Simply administering a topical ointment to those infected with scabies would have provided a temporary measure, Bryant realized the more appropriate approach was to try to eradicate the mite from the homes of the locals.
After all, a child who was treated for a scabies infection on the skin would most likely catch it again by sleeping in the same bed. But a regiment of boiling sheets or storing bed sheets for 48 hours in a garbage bag would get to the root of the problem and teach the Penan how to approach an outbreak once the volunteers left.
On that trip, Bryant and the volunteers came across a well-manicured, blue building on stilts in one of the villages. After asking what the nice building was there for, the crew was told it was a clinic, built by relief workers. But after they left none of the villagers knew what to do with the medical supplies gathering dust inside.
Bryant said at that moment he knew what he didn’t want MedicForce to be, and he questioned the real motivation behind some third-world relief endeavors.
“Sometimes it’s for our own ego that we do some of these projects,” Bryant said. “It’s shortsightedness of aid.”
Since its beginnings in 2008, on that first trip to Borneo, MedicForce volunteers have been involved in medical outreach projects in Africa, Asia and Central America, drawing from a pool of dozens of volunteers from Western North Carolina and as far away as Great Britain. Some of his recruits come from his own wilderness medical courses through NOC, where he teaches everyone from Navy Seals to FBI agents. But the 41-year old takes the greatest pride in teaching those skills to people who don’t have access to them on their own.
Volunteers often pay their own way to participate in the excursions and bring a variety of skills from dentistry to basic support services to the mission. They come from all walks of life — some are Bryant’s students and other are retired folks looking to lend a hand.
In coming months, volunteers will go to Kenya to work with the Maasai people. And even in WNC, the organization has worked to train first responders in rural communities far from medical help.
But many of the medical problems Bryant has encountered, on distinct continents in diverse cultures across the globe, all point back to the same common cause,
“It’s the same kind of things you see all over,” Bryant said. “And most of it is just from lack of resources.”
Want to help? Donate used gear
MedicForce is raising funds to build a clinic in Kenya. The organization has no paid staff and relies on gifts, donations and volunteers to operate. Donations are accepted through the group’s website, by mail or even in the form of outdoor gear for an upcoming charity event.
MedicForce is collecting outdoor gear, which it will then sell at Nantahala Outdoor Center’s Guest Appreciation Festival Sept. 27-29. All the funds raised will go towards constructing and stocking a community health post in rural Kenya. Gear can be dropped off at the NOC’s outfitter’s store.
603.733.6636 or www.medicforce.org
MedicForce, PO Box 163, Almond, NC 28713