Kevin Cahill: A Healer on a Global Mission

By Conn Corrigan, Contributor
April / May 2009

A TV mini-series could be made about the adventures Dr. Kevin Cahill has had in the various countries he has worked in. (After his wife died in 2004, he calculated that he had worked in 65 countries. She had been to 45 of them with him.)

On a number of occasions, his life was in danger. Caught up in the civil war in southern Sudan in the late 1960s, he received a telegram that – mistakenly, as it turned out – told him that his wife had had a miscarriage. To try to get to a Morse code facility at the Ethiopian border 60 miles away, he sailed up the Sobat River, where he was shot at several times. And in Beirut in 1982, after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, he was “damn near killed by both sides.”

Dr. Cahill, who is 72, has been a colossal force in the world of humanitarianism for many years. His CV is 25 pages long: he is currently the president of the Center for Humanitarian Health and Co-operation in New York City; the director of the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University (from which he graduated in 1957); the director of the Tropical Disease Center at Lenox Hill Hospital;  chief medical advisor to the president of the United Nations General Assembly; and president of the American-Irish Historical Society.

He also tells me about a “more unusual title” he is particularly proud of: Uachtarain, Cumann-Luachra (the president of the Luachra Club, a historical society based in Sliabh Luachra, a region in Co. Kerry). Sliabh Luachra contains the town of Rathmore where Dr. Cahill’s grandfather was born.

Dr. Cahill wouldn’t tell me about some of the famous people he has treated over the years, aside from very general references, citing patient confidentiality. But the list includes Pope John Paul II; Fidel Castro; Cardinals Spellman, Cook and O’Connor of New York; Leonard Bernstein; as well as every secretary-general of the United Nations (with the exception of the incumbent) since U Thant, who took office in 1961. Today, Dr. Cahill counts Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the secretary-general from 1992-1997, as a good friend.

One wall of his office on Fifth Avenue is papered with degrees and awards – he has 27 honorary degrees on the last count, and numerous awards. In all, he has written or edited 35 books and more than 200 articles, on subjects such as tropical disease, health and foreign policy, as well as the occasional meditation on Irish literature.

The doctor, who has five sons and eight grandchildren, first visited Ireland when he was thirteen. “I used to go back more often,” he explained. “But I’ve always stayed in very close touch.”

His grandfather came to the U.S. and became a policeman. He moved through the force from mounted horse corps, to street patrol, to captain, to eventually becoming the NYPD’s first director of the communications center, where he supervised a handful of Morse code operators in a single, sparse room. (A picture of his grandfather in that room lies in Dr. Cahill’s office so that he will never forget “from where I am sprung.”)

The family settled in Edenwald, the Bronx. His father went on to medical school – the day he died, Dr. Cahill himself entered Cornell Medical School. Although he was awarded a medical school scholarship, there was no extra money for room, board or books. So he worked as a chemistry lab technician several nights a week from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and then went to class from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

In 1959, he won a Lehman traveling fellow to the Far East. In India, he worked with a then “unknown Albanian nun in her Hospice for the Dying.” The world would know her in later years as Mother Teresa. Throughout rural Asia, he saw “death and disease on a vast scale,” and “returned completely and forever changed.” Dr. Cahill was drafted into the navy, a posting which saw him and his wife, Kate – they first met when they were fourteen, and he realized he was in love with her two years later – move to Egypt. They lived there for two years and it was here their son, Sean, was born.

Many countries – and appointments in medical schools around the world – would follow.

In 1982 he visited Beirut, which had been invaded by Israel. After returning, he wrote in The New York Times of Israeli bulldozers wiping away evidence that “Palestinian camps, once home for tens of thousands of families, even existed.”

Before our interview in February, he was due to go to Gaza as part of a mission with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. After he returned, I asked him if he felt a sense of déjà vu. “You could replace the name ‘Beirut’ with ‘Palestine,’” he said.

Dr. Cahill wrote a report on Gaza, as part of his job as chief humanitarian advisor to the president of the U.N. General Assembly. He shared with Irish America a draft copy of the report. “Gaza this week displayed all of the facets of Dante’s Inferno,” he wrote. “Military controls are imposed with a grinding force and overt disdain that is clearly intended to crush the human dignity of a still proud people.”

He noted the huge disparity of casualties sustained on each side: according to the World Health Organization, 1,366 Palestinians were killed in the conflict, and 14 Israelis. “These are not data of a war, but of one-sided slaughter,” he wrote.

On U.S. support of Israel, Dr. Cahill said: “But there was no escape from the fact that this was a war using American weapons of incredible air power and precision guided missiles against the home made rockets, gasoline bombs and rocks that are the major weapons of long oppressed peoples.”

Dr. Cahill also condemned the economic blockade of Gaza, writing, “The fundamental evils of continued forced isolation and economic strangulation have finally come to the fore. American congressmen visiting Gaza in the past week were unable to hide their shock at the levels of destruction.”

I also asked him about Somalia, a country he had visited every year for 35 years, beginning in 1962. Does it depress him that Somalia has not seen the lives of its people improve in over four decades? “Somalia is an example of a country that I was there for when it was born and I was there when it died,” he said. “It’s had no real functional schools since 1992. It’s an appalling story because it was really a very wonderful place when I first went there.”

A consistent theme that arises with Dr. Cahill over the course of our interview is his unswerving belief in the ability of healthcare professionals to transcend boundaries. “Medicine is that rare discipline that permits almost instant acceptability by all sides in a conflict,” he wrote following his 1982 Beirut trip.

In Nicaragua, where he has a house, he recalls doing humanitarian work in 1972, following a major earthquake in Managua. At one point he shared a tent with General Somoza, the Nicaraguan dictator. But he would also become good friends with the Rev. Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, one of the leaders of the Sandinistas, the group that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. (Today, d’Escoto is the president of the U.N. General Assembly.)

“During the 1970s, a lot of the meetings for the revolution were held in our living room. And yet Somoza knew I knew these people, and they knew that I knew Somoza. And neither one ever asked me about the other. I just thought that that’s what medicine can afford, when you don’t violate confidence or anything.”

He was able to use this gift in relation to Ireland, especially after he was appointed chairman of the tropical diseases department of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin in 1969. (Today he is professor of humanitarian affairs at the college.) “I’ve always been very interested in the role of health as a common ground,” he explained. “I would go up to Northern Ireland every year and lecture. The College of Surgeons became my Irish base.”

Another consistent theme with Dr. Cahill is the role his wife, Kate, played in shaping his career. Although she was not a physician or a health worker, she was his “indispensable partner,” his “moral compass” on his trips abroad. She also offered him strong encouragement in his writing. “I can still hear her saying,” he has written, “‘ If you don’t do something – write something, give an interview, take the heat if necessary — then your silence is adding to the problems of those left behind.’”

Finally, as our interview drew to a close, Dr. Cahill pointed to a carving lost among the drawings, manuscripts and medical instruments that competed for my attention, a small simple figure, with the words “Torture is Barbaric.”
Knowing that he had seen some true horrors, I asked him if he was ever traumatized by his experiences. There was no trace of bitterness or anger in his voice when he replied that while he saw some horrific things, he also saw many things which reinforced – rather than shattered – his faith in humanity.

Last year, in a commencement address, he told the graduate students of The College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Massachusetts, “Amid the fetid stenches of Indian urban decay, I mainly recall the strong aroma of exotic spices. I closed my eyes but usually saw saffron robes rather than soiled rags . . . I have been caught behind the lines in armed conflicts, and seen senseless slaughter from Beirut to Managua, and all across the scarred landscape of modern Africa. Somehow in the twisted wreckage of war, and in the squalor of refugee camps, the incredible beauty of humanity prevailed for me.”

Conn Corrigan is the assistant editor of the website, IrishCentral. A native of Nenagh, Co. Tipperary, he has written for The New York Sun, The New York Observer, The New York Post and The Advocate, as well as a number of Irish publications, including The Dubliner, The Belfast Telegraph and The Sunday Business Post. He also contributes regularly to The Irish Times, and has degrees from Trinity College Dublin, Dublin City University, Birkbeck College at the University of London, and Columbia University.

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