Some people are blessed with good fortune; Kevin M. Cahill, M.D., FCRH ’57, seems to be one of them.
The son of a Bronx physician, Dr. Cahill received an education in biology and the classic liberal arts from Fordham before attending medical school, just as his father had done.
The less fortunate, however, were never far from Dr. Cahill’s thoughts. So as a young physician, he received a fellowship that allowed him to relocate to Calcutta. There he tended to the poor alongside Mother Teresa while studying tropical medicine and epidemic diseases.
In the 1960s, Dr. Cahill joined the Navy, advanced his disease-specific studies in London and then headed to Africa to work in the field. He eventually arrived in a refugee camp in war-torn southern Sudan, ready to care for the wounded, sick and dying.
All of his experiences, recalled Dr. Cahill, didn’t prepare him for what he found: He was the sole doctor, responsible for tending to hundreds of mostly vulnerable women and children. He was also charged with providing them the most basic of human services, including security against the abuse and kidnappings that plagued the helpless victims.
“There are harsh realities in humanitarian field work and no amount of diplomatic sophistry can dehumanize the horrors and waste of innocent lives,” said Dr. Cahill, founding director of Fordham’s Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs (IIHA).
In his seven decades, Dr. Cahill has worked in 65 countries, mostly in refugee camps and war zones. The author of approximately 30 books, he recently released the eighth edition of Tropical Medicinethrough Fordham University Press. The volume, he said, was needed to teach the Western medical community about diseases such as leprosy and intestinal ascariasis.
“We are a nation obsessed with cancer, heart disease and stroke,” Dr. Cahill said. “Medical students graduate with very little knowledge of—or training in—tropical diseases.”
Medicine, however, has been just one component of Dr. Cahill’s lifelong efforts. Now a veteran of countless humanitarian aid crises, he thrived in a field that had little organization and few professional standards when he started. That fact, coupled with increasing global need, lit a fire under him to create a place where humanitarian aid workers could gain training and expertise that would prepare them for the field.
With Fordham’s help, he established the IIHA in 2001. The IIHA offers diplomas in humanitarian assistance, action and leadership at Fordham and in locations throughout the world. IIHA courses have been offered in India, Kenya, Sudan, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Turkey, Spain, Ireland and England, making the program accessible to people of lesser means by bringing class instruction to them.
To date, IIHA has trained some 1,600 students from 133 nations, most of whom took a hiatus from aid work to acquire further training and preparedness.
“Managing complex humanitarian emergencies, particularly in the midst of conflicts and disasters, is not a field for amateurs,” Dr. Cahill said. “The ways in which the developed world and the developing world interface, particularly in a crisis, is one of the last opportunities for us to fully understand that we are all intertwined.”
Humanitarian aid has also become a very big business, said Dr. Cahill, who serves as chief adviser for humanitarian and public health issues to the president of the United Nations General Assembly. For those reasons, the IIHA has joined with Fordham’s Graduate School of Arts and Sciences to offer a master’s degree in international humanitarian action, and with the University’s undergraduate colleges to launch minors in international humanitarian affairs and international humanitarian action. The degrees help advance Fordham’s mission to be men and women for others.
“The world needs more humanitarian workers,” he said. “For undergraduate students, the certificate provides wonderful exposure to a world that most of them have never even thought about, let alone seen.”
That world of earthquakes, civil wars and drought, admitted Dr. Cahill, can be extremely hard on the soul. One of the first lessons he learned in Calcutta was to stay calm and focused, to abandon personal concerns and to see it as a privilege to serve.
Another was to be flexible. Following the Sahel drought in Somalia, he found himself trying to teach nomads to abandon their dependency on animals and take up fishing—the only means of livelihood left to them.
What has sustained him, however, in a field that is known for its high burnout rate, has been transcendence—the discovery of beauty and romance amidst despair.
“My wife used to say that I was the only person who would come home after three months in a Somalia refugee camp and keep her awake all night telling her how beautiful it was,” Dr. Cahill said. “There were incredible scenes of sadness and
evil, but there were also exquisite sunrises and sunsets in the desert, the unexpected sounds of children laughing and the strength of mothers and grandmothers coping in the daily struggle to survive.
“Somehow, in the twisted wreckage of war and the squalor of refugee camps, the incredible beauty of humanity prevailed for me.”