Several buzzwords, not all of them kind, have been used to describe the current state of health care in America. The word that guides Dr. Kevin Cahill’s nearly 50-year career in medicine is ‘solidarity.’
“Solidarity is a wonderful Latin American word that means “Are you willing to get down in the mud with people?” he says. “So that’s why I stay practicing medicine.”
Solidarity – more than pride or even sympathy – is what Dr. Cahill, 74, feels most strongly when he reflects on the countless people he has met and cared for during his time as a physician in some of the most war-torn places on this earth. Dr. Cahill has cared for patients in 65 countries and at his practice on 5th Avenue in New York City. Drafted into the U.S. Navy Medical Corps early in his career, Dr. Cahill first completed a degree at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine before being assigned to the Naval Medical Research Unit-3 in Cairo, Egypt. Along with him came his wife, Kate, who would visit 45 countries with Dr. Cahill until her death in 2004.
Almost instantly in their travels, they witnessed heart-wrenching examples of great suffering and chaos during times of famine, drought, and war. While undertaking field investigations in Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Turkey, and across the Middle East in the Navy Medical Corps, Dr. Cahill “became increasingly aware of the extra-medical complex demands one faced in dealing with the trauma of natural and man-made disasters in areas where there were few resources.” He began to realize that “medicine offered an almost ideal platform for preventive diplomacy.” From the ‘corridors of tranquility’ in Southern Sudan, where de facto ceasefire zones could be established even during a bloody civil war, to the tree under which children and mothers could safely play in refugee camps, medicine allowed people to have peaceful interludes even as it afforded a unique view of the infrastructural collapse that often accompanies a humanitarian crisis.
Since his discharge in the mid-1960s, Dr. Cahill’s résumé has grown inconceivably long with titles, accolades, and achievements. From 1969-2006 he was Chairman of the Department of Tropical Medicine at The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, where he taught over 4,000 medical students over the course of his career. In addition, he has been Director of the Tropical Disease Center at Lenox Hill Hospital, Clinical Professor of Tropical Medicine and Molecular Parasitology at NYU Medical School, and Consultant in Tropical Medicine for the United Nations Health Services. Through all of these positions (to name just a few), he has maintained a strong connection to his Irish background. He currently serves as President of the American Irish Historical Society and has published, among a string of influential works that chronicle his experiences as a tropicalist and a physician, articles and essays on his love for Irish literature, art, and culture.
Raised in an Irish immigrant home in the Bronx, Dr. Cahill was taught from childhood the importance of Irish poetry from his own family members. The majority of his relatives established themselves in America and became policemen. His father, who as a physician was the exception to the rule, would buy up land in his native Rathmore, Co. Kerry, and give it to the family members who stayed behind. Cahill’s first visit to Ireland was when he was only 11 or 12, and since then he has maintained a strong connection to the country both through professional and personal work.
Indeed, in a room full of antique apothecary jars, old-fashioned medical instruments, wall-to-wall diplomas and accolades where we had our interview, Dr. Cahill pointed excitedly to the one item that was not immediately recognizable. It was the original print designed for the cover of Irish Essays, a collection of works on Irish literature and culture that Dr. Cahill published in 1980. A simple image of two groups of vaguely human figures come together to make one mass as they float across the white background. It’s amazing to think that someone who has traveled to 65 countries, many in states of war, degradation, and suffering that are impossible to put into words, still would have time to express his passion for Irish culture, or that he would even want to. But this expression, Dr. Cahill explains, has actually been strengthened by the humanity and joy that transcended the horrors of war during his travels. “I think being grounded in your own ethos allows you to see and appreciate other cultures and be more sensitive…I come away with tremendous admiration for them. The Dinka in the Southern Sudan have a culture that to them is just as proud and rich as our Irish culture.”
Dr. Cahill’s life has been so full, so jam-packed with humbling experiences that, at best, it can only be uncovered and described anecdotally: “I remember one time in Somalia coming back from way up country…in those years there were [only] 12 miles of paved roads, so when we traveled 400 miles across the desert, we found a disease that had never been recorded in Africa. I went to the American Embassy – I was a young naval officer – and I said, ‘We found the cause of this disease that is killing large numbers of people.’ And I was told that the American ambassador was busy. How you can be busy in 1963 in Somalia I don’t know…[but] I had the obligation to try to help save lives. So I walked across town and gave that information to the World Health Organization office. They gave it to China, which got the right to bring in the antibiotic and got the right to build the roads.”
Dr. Cahill’s great passion and driving influence has clearly not just been the practice of medicine, but its ability to lift a barrier between countries, factions, and cultures and reveal our basic humanity. “When I first started teaching in Ireland in 1969…that was the year of Bloody Sunday. Throughout the 70s I would go up to Belfast and lecture. I had good medical friends, both Catholic and Protestant, who had members of their families killed because they dared to make house calls. It wasn’t always easy, but through The College of Surgeons in Dublin we made certain that doctors in Belfast were invited down to conferences, and that you made rounds in the hospitals with them. So I think medicine does allow you to do that if you’re not judgmental.”
Dr. Cahill tells me that the codes of neutrality and patient confidentiality are traced back to Hippocrates, a practice that “goes back to a long time before our country was founded. That goes back to the very essence of what we try to do as a profession.” Despite some flare-ups at times (he has been stopped by American Immigration more than once and asked to divulge details of his visits with people at odds with American policy), Dr. Cahill says, “Medicine has its own traditions and you can’t go out and use your position to spread a rumor or detail. Patients get to know very well if they have your confidence.”
This confidence also provides a unique conduit for education and mediation. Dr. Cahill has written widely, particularly in his book Preventive Diplomacy, that the methodology of public health offers an opportunity to combine diplomacy with humanitarian solutions. “I used to think I was the most important person in the camp as a doctor. But the first thing a mother or child wants is a place to play. That becomes very important because it’s the protected area you can use to teach children better nutrition or how not to step on a landmine.”
At the core of Dr. Cahill’s understanding of humanitarian crises is the need for education. His recent book, Even in Chaos: Education in Times of Emergency, teaches how the field of medicine can provide unbiased insight. “At the launch of the book at the United Nations, someone asked how long it took to put the book together. I said 30-40 years, because I think I’ve been thinking about it that long, how important education is in the life of a child. [Medicine] has to be a very broad field, embracing anything that interferes with the welfare of the people you’re trying to serve.”
Sometimes, as Dr. Cahill points out, there’s only so much nations can do to give aid, and amassing large amounts of money is not the answer to the multifaceted problems that developing and war-torn countries face. “I think the focus purely on individual diseases and not on the infrastructure and health needs in developing countries is probably a mistake… [With] a lot of the chaos in revolutionary areas, health services are almost always the first thing to break down. It’s very artificial to think that diseases or aid works within barriers. Mosquitoes don’t know where the barrier is.”
A medical consultant for the United Nations, Dr. Cahill says the organization is crucial in coordinating all the players and countries who want to help during a natural or man-made disaster, including the United States. “America has every right to be proud of what it’s done historically, but whether it’s all done in the best way is sometimes constrained by politics,” he says, referring to how aid allocation is shaped by foreign policy in the United States. “We are a fairly major player, and every citizen should feel that they can participate, individually or through donations…I think that’s something that enriches them as well as the people they serve. But it’s not all money.”
Dr. Cahill’s work in changing this attitude towards health and infrastructural needs has been so effective because he has led by example. He has been instrumental in the creation of an educational program in the field of humanitarian assistance at Fordham University. Now, for over 20 years, Fordham has offered both a post-graduate master’s degree and undergraduate minor in this field, which combines public health, medicine, law, security, technology, and even anthropology and philosophy. To date, over 1500 students from 133 nations have graduated from this unique, multidisciplinary program that is changing the way we approach complex humanitarian crises.
“[The program is] trying to develop a cadre of people who are professionals in this field. It’s not a field for amateurs…You deal with many, many factors that no one talks about. You deal with corruption. You deal with incompetence. You deal with theft, with people making profits out of disasters. It’s not a field where having the feeling that you’re doing good is its own rationale. That really doesn’t change a lot of things unless you can change the system.”
Despite the immense challenges, Dr. Cahill is extremely confident in the abilities and compassion of these humanitarians, who will shape, moment by moment, individual by individual, the way organizations and even nations approach future humanitarian crises. Dr. Kevin Cahill has been a luminary for this noble cause of peace and diplomacy along the way.
“I think the fact that I’ve been privileged to serve poor and oppressed people is my greatest achievement. That really is the satisfying thing that continues to drive me.”