Monday 11 December 2017

Hero of the Mediterranean

Sligo's Dr Conor Kenny tells us about plucking refugees from the sea off the coast of Libya

Sorcha Crowley

Sligo doctor Dr Conor Kenny is back at the frontline of the refugees crisis in the Mediterranean.

In his latest mission as Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) medic on board the 'Aquarius' rescue ship he is patrolling the search and rescue zone on the refugee route between Libya and Italy.

"It can be quite intense, you literally have to get on with it," he told The Sligo Champion during a much-needed break in Sicily.

He had just finished his first three-week stint of a three month mission with the charity which started on February 16th and has rescued over 900 people from nine wooden and rubber boats.

His team are 36 hours from the port of Catania in Sicily to the Search and Rescue zone where they patrol the waters off the coast of Libya, one of the busiest routes used by refugees since the EU shut down the Eastern Mediterranean land route from Syria.

As the only medic on board, Conor is in the first rib to the boat where he surveys the scene and attempts to identify the number of women and children, those unconscious or sadly dead on board.

"I'm in constant contact with the rest of the medical team which allows us to prepare the necessary medical response to the given situation. We then take the most vulnerable cases on to our life raft and head back to the Aquarius. I then stay on the Aquarius and start medical treatment whilst the rest of the rescue takes place," he said.

While he is supported by a team of one midwife, one paediatric nurse and one anaesthetic nurse, Conor is still the only doctor on board: "It's a serious amount of responsibility, that's not lost on me. But you've got a team behind you who are very experienced in different areas of medicine. It's about maximising your team but you can only do your best. Sometimes no amount of preparation can prepare you for that. It's a big responsibility but I enjoy it," he said.

"I've a lot of experience. You learn from your previous missions on how to be resilient. The stuff that affects you is often not the stuff you thought would," he said.

Most of the people rescued suffer from hypothermia, dehydration and exhaustion, with many severely burned by fuel which becomes corrosive after it mixes with seawater.

Most of the people Conor sees are from sub-Saharan Africa - countries like Eritrea, Ghana and Congo to name but a few - but also increasingly from places like Syria. All those rescued must eat and sleep up on top of the ship's deck, which can cater for 400 people. The resulting mix of cultures create moments of common humanity, says Conor.

"My abiding memory of our last rescue on Friday 3rd March was watching some Nigerian women singing to Bangladeshi men who at the time were babysitting the Syrian children on the boat. There were about 50 children on the deck and some of the Bangladeshi men were entertaining the kids. The Nigerian women just randomly broke out into song and they started singing to the Bangladeshi men who started singing back in their own language. It was incredible, a real fusion of cultures, three continents coming together," he said.

That rescue mission was carried out around 2am in stormy waters when they came across 80 Bangladeshi men in a dingy: "They were absolutely soaking wet, they had been in the water over 24 hours, they hadn't eaten, they were in complete distress. Their dingy was deflating in front of us so there was panic."

When he's not busy pulling casualties from the sea, Conor must 'muck in' with daily chores like any other crew member on board the ship.

"There's no escaping it even if you're the medic on board, I'm scrubbing the toilets and cleaning the deck," he laughed. "But on a more serious note, hygiene is really important so for me the toilets and decks are a big thing," he added.

The best things about working on the rescue boat is "being part of someone's journey" he said.

"Whatever the destination it's a real privilege and the best part of my job. It's can get highly pressured however there is a mild send of elations when you get everyone back to land in one piece.

"Following every rescue you are reminded of people's incredible resilience and the fine line that exists between life and death," he added.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is an independent international medical humanitarian organisation that delivers emergency aid in nearly 70 countries worldwide. MSF provides emergency medical care to people caught up in war, disasters and epidemics. For more see

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