Kevin Cahill receiving the Presidential Distinguished Service Award from Irish President Michael D Higgins.FordhamNotes / Fennell Photography

A Dream for Dublin is the inspiring story of how New York-based Doctor Kevin Cahill founded the world renowned Department of Tropical Medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin against all odds. He spent a record 36 year building its international reputation.

Dr Cahill is internationally renowned, having treated Popes and presidents, as well as identifying the anthrax attack on NBC New York when others could not.

In this chapter he discusses those years and the extraordinary Irish people he met who made the dream possible and the perspective he gained on life during his extraordinary journey

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Since 2005 my most influential contacts in Dublin have been Michael Horgan, Niall Burgess, and Michael D. Higgins, all with similar visions of the broad role that Ireland could – and must – play in the world.

Michael Horgan joined the RCSI as a 24-year-old assistant administrator and retired in 2009 as its CEO, the only non-medical person in its long history to be selected to direct the affairs of the College. He is currently the Chair of both the Rotunda Hospital Board in Dublin, and of the National Health and Safety Authority Board. He has also recently succeeded me as President of the Colles-Garaves Foundation. This book is dedicated to him.

Niall Burgess, the Secretary-General of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and Trade, was the Consul General in New York before his relocation to Dublin. His appointment as the senior diplomat overseeing some 80 Irish Embassies around the world gave new life to the role Ireland, a small but potentially important nation, can play in the new global order.

During his time in New York I came to know Niall – and his family – very well and we shared personal time, and many meals and swims, at our beach house.

Niall is a wise, discreet and modest man who has generously offered to me his advice and almost contagious friendship. In a deeply appreciated, symbolic gesture to define his tenure as Secretary–General he chose for his first public act a ceremony launching The Open Door: Art and Politics at the RCSI at Iveagh House, the headquarters of the DFA in Dublin. He stated, at the launch, that this event reflected his broad vision of what Ireland – and his friend – offered to the world. He also suggested that the RCSI and the DFA, “as long-term neighbors on the Green,” cosponsor an annual lecture on a topic of mutual interest. That could be the basis for a future series to The Open Door.

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Michael D. Higgins, the President of Ireland, has been another close colleague in the evolving world of international humanitarian work. I first met Michael D. in Nicaragua in the 1970s when he was a human rights activist and I was a physician serving the oppressed. In the early days of the Sandinista Government, and in the midst of the Contra War, we found mutual fertile ground for those interested in the search for peace and justice. Someone once noted that “war and childhood make good friends,” and we have known each other in that very special, unique way.

President Higgins and I have been in regular contact for many decades on common efforts tilting at eternal windmills in the endless struggle for human dignity and even occasionally succeeding in helping to right wrongs. All of this was – and remains – part of the original Dublin Dream. In 2014 President Higgins conferred upon me the highest award of the Government of Ireland for an overseas person.

Perspectives

Again, blessedly, I have been able, during the last decade, to continue to offer RCSI, and Ireland, a perspective that brought unusual experience to bear in addressing important international problems and challenges. The death of my wife in 2004 brought to an end a unique love, and a perspective, not easily quantified. Our 44 years of marriage, including many periods in refugee camps, and other activities in humanitarian crises, provided a foundation to guide my way. Her influence on my life was utterly pervasive. In whatever endeavor – medical, political. Diplomatic – If she said “that doesn’t sound like you, Kevin” I knew I was probably on the wrong path. I would re-evaluate my position, and start over from scratch.

Before she died she gave a final gift, saying, “you have to stop being sad. We have had of the most wonderful marriages, imaginable, and I would not have changed a thing.” I sometimes feel guilty that I’ve never been sad after her death, for she offered so many reasons for joy, and for a continued commitment to a world that needs our full involvement.

Actress Meryll Streep joins Kevin Cahill for the launch of a recent book.

Actress Meryll Streep joins Kevin Cahill for the launch of a recent book.

I did not expect, at the end of a decade as Professor of International Humanitarian Affairs at the RCSI, that the rhythm of medical and academic life would still be my privilege. The intellectually uplifting, satisfying, often humbling, always edifying, experience of seeing patients four mornings per week continues. I never know what diagnostic problems will present in a medical practice where a very large percentage of persons sent to me are difficult, very sick patients, who have resisted routine analyses and therapy.

I still arise at 4:30 each morning, enjoy the moon, and the dawn, and am in my office by 6:00AM to receive telephone calls from patients and colleagues from all over the strange world they inhabit: sick missionaries, UN personnel, frightened travelers, friends, diplomats and humanitarian workers. This perspective – the international contacts and challenges of a complex life – runs like a strong thread throughout the activities of my day. My afternoons are usually devoted to reading, writing or some form of teaching/administration, not unrelated to my original RCSI dreams and duties.

A new venture in New York has been in offering exhibits in medical history in a one of my New York bases, Lenox Hill Hospital, where they have designated space in my name in the library. On weekends I recharge the batteries of a full life with a lifelong pattern of retreat to the sea, with gardening, walks on the beach, and preparing a house, without a wife, for the joyous arrival of children and grandchildren, and other family and friends.

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Travel is no longer as major a part of my life, although I am surprised that there are still opportunities to retain the essential perspective that comes only with deep immersion in other cultures, and, in particular, in areas of great distress.

In the past few years, I have once again been in Somalia, accompanying the President of the General Assembly of the United Nations and its Secretary-General on a fact-finding mission. While meeting with Somalia’s governmental leaders, one of the Ministers pointed at me, declaring over and over again in a loud voice: “He is my father!” although he knew I did not have any Somali offspring. The puzzlement was clarified when the Minister explained that many years earlier I had cured his biological father from a near fatal bout of cerebral malaria. That service, at least in his view, made me his father. I accepted the honor with a paternal embrace.

I later visited the largest refugee camp in the world in Daadab, Kenya where I met a number of our IDHA graduates working there as relief workers. I have happily been back to see friends, renew programs and launch a Spanish edition of my tropical medicine textbooks in Nicaragua. Lectures and medical consultations continue to bring me to Europe, the Middle East, and the Caribbean.

I once concluded a Bicentennial Address at Georgetown University by citing the final perspective of W.B Yeats, and I offer here as a timeless thought:

How can I, that girl standing there,

My attention fix

On Roman or on Russian

Or on Spanish politics?

Yet here’s a traveled man that knows

What he talks about,

And there’s a politician

That has read and thought.

And maybe what they say is true

Of war and war’s alarms,

But O that I were young again

And held her in my arms.

This book is the tale of one path on a journey into the unknown, focusing on a Dublin Dream, but presenting a full, complex life, with many unexpected changes, reflecting some wisdom, and varied experiences, including savoring the essentials of service and love in humanitarian affairs.

The “bud of thought,” part of my evolving commitment to international relief work has, as the Nicaraguan poet, and I, had hoped, blossomed into a rose with many petals. By having thousands of IDHA graduates, and through the dozens of my publications used by those working among refugees and displaced around the world, I continue to be involved in easing the pains of those in need around the world. For that I am extremely grateful.