Irish America Hall of Fame: Dr. Kevin Cahill


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.”