Dublin doctor helping Africans most in need
Wild Geese: Niall Conroy, doctor in Sierra Leone
Niall Conroy: “I’m currently looking into doing a PhD on newborn care in Africa.”
It’s a phrase often overused when speaking about poverty in Africa – “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime”.
But clichés aside, this is exactly what Niall Conroy is achieving through his work as a doctor. The 36-year-old from Tallaght, Dublin, says that, despite having visited Africa before, touching down in Sierra Leone in March 2013, was a personal and professional jolt.
“The country was ravaged by war between 1991 and 2002 and it has struggled to recover. The poverty and deprivation I witnessed in hospitals on arriving was a massive culture shock.”
Niall chose to work in Africa after accepting a one-year contract as part of a combined programme with Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Ireland, Unicef and Sierra Leone’s ministry of health.
“I had come back from Australia and New Zealand and wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, so this seemed like a good option and a worthy cause.” With Sierra Leone’s infant mortality rates among the highest in the world, Niall decided that training medical staff to treat babies was where he would focus his attention.
“Very simple infections routinely kill young children and pregnant women. One in 20 babies in Sierra Leone dies before they are one month old. The hospitals and clinics often don’t have electricity or running water. Even basic medication is very, very scarce.”
Struggling to rebuildDuring his first year, Niall was based in the country’s second largest city Bo – home to about half a million people, most of whom exist below the poverty line. The war destroyed the infrastructure and more than a decade later the government is still struggling to rebuild it.
“Because we were quite isolated, food and medicine didn’t always arrive on time, you’d go through periods of a few weeks where nothing would come. That’s a real problem when you have a huge amount of patients suffering from malnutrition.
“There is a designated ward for starving children, but we’d frequently run out of food for them. Those babies need a special kind of milk, as malnourished infants can’t tolerate a normal diet, so we couldn’t even bring food in from home to feed them.”
Working on the frontline of such harrowing destitution, Niall cherishes the handful of memories he has from Sierra Leone, when he met those who weren’t suffering.
“Walking to get a taxi to work in the morning was one of my favourite parts of the day. I was quite a novelty for the local kids, so they would all rush out of their houses to wave at me and their mothers would wish me good luck for the day ahead.
“At the hospital, my rounds would take up most of the morning, but if we finished early I would bring the medical students outside to give them a tutorial in the fresh air.
“As we studied, we’d eat mangoes that we risked life and limb to pick from the very high trees in the hospital grounds.”
When Niall’s contract ended in 2014 he returned to Ireland, narrowly missing the outbreak of Ebola. “I left about a month before Ebola arrived. I often think about going back . . . but I don’t have any particular expertise in Ebola, so I’m not sure what I could do.”
With his path to Sierra Leone blocked by Ebola, Niall sought out other places where he could help and quickly found a children’s hospital in the east African state of Somaliland.
“There’s a fantastic Italian charity working there trying to improve the quality of paediatric care in the capital Hargeisa. So I spent four months in charge of clinical care there.”
Niall has spent the past three years going back and forth between Africa and Ireland. He’s now trying to figure out how he can help its people long-term.
Traditional medical career“The newborn death rate in low-income countries is scandalous, that’s why I left my traditional medical career to focus on babies in the poorest countries on Earth. I’m currently looking into doing a PhD on newborn care in Africa. Ideally, I can combine field work with some useful research.”
But Niall says not everyone in Ireland believes he can make a difference.
“I come across a lot of misconceptions when talking to people who say Africa is a black hole for aid and nothing has changed in all the years that we have been donating money.
“I agree that the problems in Africa are vast, but there are also a lot fewer people living in absolute poverty, starving or dying than there were 10 years ago. ”