It’s four hours before Paralympian sailor Austin O’Carroll returns to the water in Rio. His first outing as part of the Irish team the previous day didn’t go too well but O’Carroll isn’t downhearted. “It was a bad day. Today’s a new day, a new beginning,” he says, sounding like he’s trying to convince himself as much as me.
O’Carroll’s positive attitude pervades all areas of his life. His Paralympic adventure is a break of sorts from the hectic pace of his professional life as a GP in Dublin’s north inner city. Born with foreshortened limbs because of the effects of Thalidomide, the 54-year-old Dubliner and father-of-two needed all his determination when it came to pursuing a career in medicine, although he was helped along the way by no less than two future presidents of Ireland.
“I always wanted to do medicine, since I was a teenager. irishWhen I qualified, because of my hands and disabilities I was advised I couldn’t do medicine. I did law [in Trinity] instead but I didn’t like it. I was talking to a friend who thought it was ridiculous I couldn’t do medicine, so I went back to my tutor for first year, Mary McAleese — Mary Robinson was my tutor in second year —and she said ‘that’s ridiculous’. She organised for me to see the medical board the following week, and I remember going in and showing them my hands. A week later I was in med.”
Does he think the challenges he faced because of his disabilities made him more determined?
“I think there was an element of really wanting to show you can do things, so the anger fuels the drive. And it’s a good thing in that it teaches you to be independent, and to get over it.”
He also says his mother’s approach helped him become more resilient.
“My mother would always let me fight my own fights, out on the road she wouldn’t treat me any differently, she let me mix with other kids. I used to have my legs broken every so often to straighten them, and the surgeon would tell my mother not to let me play football, but I loved football. She didn’t force me to stop, and that gave me a sense of normality as a child.”
Participating in the Paralympics has given O’Carroll the opportunity to indulge his love of competitive sport. “I’ve always liked sport, but when I was a child, I had to sit down for sport in school. For field sports they’d all be outside and I’d be sitting in the class — so this has given me a chance to compete at a sport. And it’s also been good in getting fitter, and I’ve lost weight, which is great. It’s an amazing experience, the opportunity of a lifetime.”
As well as working as a GP, O’Carroll is also the founder of Safetynet, which provides a free primary care service for the homeless and other vulnerable groups.
“For me, homelessness is another part of the wedge of poverty, it’s not a separate thing. The homeless show such resilience in ways, although you can’t survive homelessness without it scarring you — but they’re an amazing group of people to work with. You’re working with people who often have challenging behaviours, their lifestyles may make it difficult for them to comply with certain things. A key element of working with homeless people is persistence, and not giving up on people, that you don’t say ‘I tried my best’ and give up. I’ve always liked that type of work.”
O’Carroll says he finds his work rewarding on many levels.
“First, when we started there were no health services for homeless people, so in one way you can really see the difference you’re making, which is fantastic. Second, people working in that sector want to work there and tend to be very passionate about it, so you really enjoy working with those people.”
He strongly believes that social justice, not charity, should drive rights for the homeless and other vulnerable groups.
“I have great admiration for the charity groups working in this sector, but in a way charity accepts the situation, whereas a social justice approach says ‘this is wrong’. If such people were born where I was born they wouldn’t be homeless. There’s a sense that they’re homeless because they’re less well off, whereas I think they’re homeless because we have an unjust society.”
O’Carroll will be talking about his work at the Irish Street Medicine Symposium at UCC next Saturday. The inaugural symposium was hosted last year by the North Dublin City GP Training Programme, of which O’Carroll is director. The theme of this year’s event is Health and Homelessness — Working Together, Learning From Each Other.
“It’s a wonderful event,” he says. “There is that sense of collegiality among everybody working in the area, not only the sharing of ideas but the sharing of passion and commitment to keep going.”
O’Carroll also says that while most people are aware of the growing problem of homelessness, not a lot is known about the associated severe health problems and the services needed to tackle them. Homelessness has a huge impact on people’s health. It’s not just about housing, it’s about saving people’s lives,” he says.
And with that, it’s time for O’Carroll to head for the bus to his next sailing event, another challenge to be relished.