Tuesday 23 January 2018

'It terms of life experience, GAA has been a huge help'

Reaching out: Conor Kenny with an elderly woman.
Reaching out: Conor Kenny with an elderly woman.
Dr Conor Kenny

He's barely entered his thirties, yet Dr Conor Kenny has known for more than two decades that the letters MSF would feature in his future.

"I was about eight. I had broken my leg at school playing Gaelic football and it was around the time of the Bosnian War," Conor tells Review. "Sarajevo was under siege. What I remembered was a feeling that MSF seemed to be the only organisation caring for the injured people - I became an admirer of what they were doing. I might have only been eight but I remember thinking 'these are the good guys'. They were making a difference."

From Rosses Point, Co Sligo, Conor is the second-youngest in a family of three brothers and one sister. While there was no medical background in his immediate family, he points to an aunt who worked with vulnerable people in Latin America and back home as a significant influence.

After completing his Leaving Cert at Summerhill College, he made his first strides into the medical sphere, studying physiotherapy. However, a volunteering trip to the West Bank in 2007 had a "massive impact... in terms of wanting to do something around refugee health". While completing his general medicine studies in Brighton and Sussex medical school in the UK, he travelled to Zanzibar for an elective in obstetrics and paediatrics in 2011 and found himself thrown into the rescue-and-relief effort after the disastrous sinking of the Spice Islander ferry, in which upwards of 1,500 people perished.

"It was so chaotic there," the 31-year-old recalls. "It gave me a great grounding in having a structured, focused response in terms of humanitarian medicine."

Most recently, Conor worked in the emergency department of King's College Hospital, London, one of Europe's busiest A&Es. If being laid up with a Gaelic football injury first made him aware of MSF all those years ago, he points to later experiences on the field as being key in steeling him for life on the frontline of Europe's refugee crisis now in Idomeni.

"Not to diminish the seriousness of the situation we're in, but in terms of life-long experiences, GAA has been a huge [help]," says the former Sligo minor who captained his club, Drumcliffe-Rosses Point, in county championships. "In those teams you're dealing with different characters and you're managing everyone's emotions.

"There is a certain intensity [in both fields] where it's all about control, communication, discipline, focus on the task in hand, making sure that your team is locked in on what you're trying to achieve. So all that was reinforced through football from a very young age and that still counts for me every day here."

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