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Wild Geese: ‘It’s amazing where life can take you’

Marcus O’Brien is a production manager in a medical device company in Germany

Marcus O’Brien with his wife Gaby and son Till. He recently become the first Irish person and the first native English speaker to be admitted into the German Guild of Medical Technology.

It was a moment that confirmed how fully Marcus O’Brien had integrated into his new homeland. Following the completion of his industrial masters degree in medical technology, he recently become the first Irish person and the first native English speaker to be admitted into the German Guild of Medical Technology.

The award was made by the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce to the production manager at Dufner-Instrumente, a medical device company in the Baden-Württemberg town of Tuttlingen in southern Germany.

Born in Dublin, O’Brien’s family moved to Carrigaline in Cork when he was two years old. He completed a degree in music in the University College Cork before moving to Germany when he was 24.

“I came to Germany in 1994 with a friend and our plan was to work in an Irish bar or two! After eight months he was heading home and I thought, ‘I’ll stay another year maybe’.

“A German friend’s father had a surgical instrument business, specialising in bone cutting instruments and I began working for him as a machine operator in Tuttlingen.”

He attended some seminars through that first year and began to develop a love for the production process. “You see the history of the surgical instrument from start to finish and I developed a real appreciation for that.”

However, initially, O’Brien tried to make his mark on the sales and marketing side of the business in another company.

“I thought I’d be better in sales being a native English speaker. Seventy per cent of customers for surgical instruments are from the United States so I thought, being a native English speaker, language would be an advantage to me in sales. But I found I missed production.

In 2001, O’Brien took a job in Dufner-Instrumente the the southern German town and started in assembly.

“In the surgical instrument business here, German steel is used. Everything is done here, milling the steel, hardening it, putting it together right through to the production of the surgical instrument. It’s a fascinating process”.

When, some years later, he was considering doing the masters programme, language again emerged as the main concern for O’Brien.

Written German

“I felt my spoken German was good enough in that I knew all the terminology of the business but it wasn’t until four years ago that I felt my written German was good enough in terms of grammar to study academically.

“I applied for the industrial masters in medical technology and it took three and a half years to complete. Through the course, there are 23 hours of tests and oral and written exams,” says O’Brien.

But it’s not just the job that has kept O’Brien in Germany.

“One of the things that I love about Germany is how individual and pronounced each season is. In winter, we usually get deep snow; in summer, it’s lovely and warm. You can feel every season.

“And the Germans do have a sense of humour! I am really lucky to have ended up in this southern region of the country. The scenery here is fabulous and I’m not sure if I would have stayed if I had ended up somewhere other than Tuttlingen”.

O’Brien married a German woman, Gaby , who he met through the German friend whose father he worked for. The couple now have one son, Till.

While he does get back to Ireland once every year, for the business he’s in, Germany is the place to be.

“Most of the world’s surgical instruments are made here and Tuttlingen is very well known for the manufacturing of surgical instruments. It is an area where the German manufacturing tradition remains very strong. Even during the financial crisis, although it was felt by us, it was not to the degree it was felt by the automobile manufacturing industry in other parts of the country. The medical industry tends not to fluctuate as much”.

Dufner-Instrumente celebrated 50 years in business in 2015 and, as a company, specialises in the manufacture of surgical instruments used in minimal invasive or endoscopic surgery. The company employs 20-25 people in production and 12 in administration.

“Surgeries are so advanced now. For example, for certain heart procedures in the past, the surgeon would have to break someone’s chest bone to gain access to the chest cavity. Now, for those procedures, three holes can be drilled in someone’s chest. Into one of the holes the surgeon puts a camera with a light on it, into the other he puts carbon dioxide which expands the chest cavity and allows the surgeon space to see and operate and in the third hole is the surgical tool needed to preform the procedure. These are among the types of surgical procedures we make the instruments for at Dufner-Instrumente,” says O’Brien.

“It’s amazing where life can take you,” says O’Brien. “I hadn’t a word of German when I came here and at 24 years old, I really thought I’d just be working in a few Irish bars for a while.”