Simon Collins, director and owner, Travel Health Clinic
In conversation with Mary McCarthy
Career path Band Aid happened when I was in fifth year and the discussion of famine made me want to work overseas; though I didn’t act on this instinct until I was 30.
Growing up in Limerick my dad was a dentist, my mum a radiographer and my two brothers had graduated as doctors so that was all a big influence on me going to the Royal College of Surgeons.
Apart from an unformed desire to work abroad, I had no career path, so I did the General Practice scheme. I worked in Cavan for two years and was lecturing in UCD when it struck me I would be doing this for the rest of my life if I did not go and work abroad.
Up until now I had not been out of Europe and I will be forever grateful to John O’Shea in Goal because that organisation’s ethos of ‘just go and do it’ gave me the opportunity and without experience the other aid agencies and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) would not hire me.
I remember the day in 1999 when I was called into the Goal office in Dún Laoghaire where I went down to the basement to chat with very nice HR people who told me ‘the good news is you’re hired as a project coordinator in South Sudan in a tiny place called One Rock, but the bad news is we can’t find it on the map’.
The place was actually called Wunock and the project had been set up by an Irish priest from Co Meath who had married a local and got very involved in human rights following the 1998 famine and ongoing civil war.
I lived in a mud hut with no electricity or running water with three other expats and we ran a network the size of Limerick, building and running semi-permanent clinics and flying everything in like Meccano sets.
It was chaotic. One day we had a US evangelical church group show up with $60,000 in a suitcase and we used the money to build a clinic. We would work all day and lie under the stars drinking beer at night with a getaway bag at the end of our beds.
A decade later when I set up the Travel Health Clinic, our trading name was ‘One Rock’ in recognition of my two years in Sudan which saw me completely lose my fear and change my career direction which I started by doing a diploma in tropical medicine.
The day before I left Africa was the day before the Twin Tower attacks and I had swung an interview with John Garang of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). He was leading the mainly Christian south against the country’s Muslim Arab government up north in Khartoum – and this was an incredible experience for me. I then did a Masters in the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London where my dissertation focused on this.
After this I sat in Dublin the summer of 2012 with no idea what to do when Goal phoned and asked me to help for six weeks in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There was a new country director who was a bit unconventional.
I went out and he resigned in the bush on a Saturday night – there was a team of 15 expats and 200 local staff and I was the only show in town. This was the toughest job I ever had, a crash course in diplomacy and management with schoolboy French.
After a year and a half I followed a German nurse I was seeing, who was working with MSF, to Congo-Brazzaville. Now I had experience MSF were offering me work.
I loved being a hands-on doctor again and the next couple of years took me to West Darfur and the Central African Republic. It was gung-ho and appealed to my slightly subversive side.
I still get calls from MSF when they need help. It is like the aid agencies, once you are on the books you never come off.
My wife Kate lets me go for a month at a time. I helped the Ebola response in Congo (2019) and Sierra Leone (2014) and was in Haiti (2010) for the earthquake.
I’m an old dog now but Kate understands this is part of me and something I like to do.
Thought into action
When I met Kate in 2006 I realised I wanted to live long term in Ireland and we got married in 2009.
She is the engine of the company – I was forever droning on about setting up my own business but all I could see were hurdles and Kate made every obstacle disappear.
To her nothing is impossible. If I said it was the money she knew someone in a bank to apply for a loan. If it is a computer issue she knows someone who can sort it.
I’m so lucky I met her. She is the co-director and works with me running the business – she is so good with people. Without Kate I would still be talking about it.
The pandemic saw our travel business dry up overnight. Initially, we could not see we would move into antibody and PCR Covid testing, that we would survive, so it was an anxious time.
When lockdown was announced it made sense to shut the doors. I worked in St James in the ICU for a few weeks until the peak passed.
Turning patients that are ventilated on their backs can take four or five people, and my experience from the Congo and Sierra Leone was useful.
There were lots of people who wanted the reassurance of knowing if they have had Covid so we started offering antibody tests, and then in May when the commercial labs started Covid testing, we did this and within two weeks we had all staff working again.
I’m up at 6.30am and I check test results on my phone and email the results. People are often waiting to hop on a flight and accuracy is crucial. We have done over 4,000 so far.
I recently treated myself to an electric bike and after breakfast with the family I zoom into work. Kate is working from home mostly but if not she will walk in after me.
For any positive tests I liaise with HSE contact tracing. I arrange a courier for the first set of samples mid morning to bring to the lab, and we have four more couriers arrive throughout the day with the last one at 5.30pm.
Between seeing people for tests, I check emails. We have many corporate clients, so I could be advising an aid worker who is sick in hospital – they show me their test results and pictures of medicine and I liaise with the doctors.
Everyone who comes for a Covid test has a story – many people are flying home to countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria or Honduras because a parent is sick. Or they are returning and work in childcare and their employer requires a test.
The other category of people who are travelling tend to be on the executive side – you don’t see many juniors.
I usually work Saturday morning and I’ll answer emails. On Sunday I try to take a day off. Myself and Kate talk about the business non-stop, it’s our third child.
When you run a business with a number of staff – we have ten, some part time – the person who gets paid last is you.
So in a so-so year, everyone gets paid a normal amount, and you get paid less.
In a good year, everyone gets paid a normal amount and you get paid more. For now everything we have goes into the business.
The upside is feeling more in control of our own destiny and getting home to read a bedtime story to Elizabeth (10) and David (7) every night. Thank goodness for JK Rowling.
I’m grateful to have a job that gets me physically out of the house and it’s not all Covid. We still have a tiny blip of aid workers walking in the door with malaria. That side of the business is close to my heart and will always be with us.
We don’t know how our business will change though we hope in a few years we will return to how we were before.