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One Irish GP’s road to Rio

Inner city GP, GP trainer, campaigner, tireless advocate for the homeless and other vulnerable groups, Dr Austin O’Carroll is about to add yet another string to his bow — that of a Paralympian sailor. 

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Dr Austin O’Carroll

The Medical Independent (MI) caught up with Dr O’Carroll just as he was about to head off to Rio for training ahead of the Paralympic World Games in September, where he will represent Ireland as a member of the Irish Paralympic Sailing Team.

A keen sailor, Dr O’Carroll became interested in the sport in his 20s, when he joined the Glenans Irish Sailing Club and he subsequently bought a boat with a fellow GP and sailing enthusiast, which they named Dr JP Frog.

In the intervening years a busy family life and medical career meant that Dr O’Carroll took a break from sailing, however, his passion for the sport was reawakened in 2012. He first represented Ireland in 2013 and along with his two team-mates, John Twomey from Cork and Ian Costelloe from Kerry, subsequently qualified in Melbourne for the 2016 Games in Rio. 

Dr O’Carroll’s team-mate Mr Twomey has also been chosen to carry the Team Ireland flag for the opening ceremony of the Paralympics on 7 September in the Maracanã Stadium in Rio. This will be Mr Twomey’s record 11th Paralympic Games.

The Irish sailing team will be competing in a Sonar; a 23-foot, three-person keeled boat and Dr O’Carroll will man the front of the craft.

“I was the most inexperienced person when I went on. I was a club sailor and next thing I am going on with these sailors who have sailed in the Paralympics…so I had a lot of learning to do and that is the part I have enjoyed the most, just mastering a craft and being able to become good at sailing,” he explained.

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Making waves: Mr Ian Costello, Dr Austin O’Carroll, and Mr John Twomey

Skill-set

It is surprising where GP training skills can come into use and no less so when it is on board a 23-foot Sonar racing boat.

While Dr O’Carroll has learned a lot from his team-mates, he has found that the communication skills training he perfected as Director of the North Dublin City GP Training Scheme has also proved hugely beneficial in improving communication skills on board. 

“I think I was useful in improving communication skills… they are really skilled sailors I have learned a lot from them… we have a great camaraderie as a team,” he stated.

The Irish Paralympic Sailing Team will be up against 13 other countries in Rio. According to Dr O’Carroll, unlike parasailing teams from some countries who are made up of full-time sailors, the sailors on the Irish team are part-time and although they receive funding from the Sports Council, it does not match that received by some teams from around the world. However, he said that this was the same for all Irish Olympians and Paralympians.

“We are up against people who have a lot of time to spend sailing and that is one of the things that goes against us,” he commented.

It is hard to imagine where Dr O’Carroll finds the time for his busy day job, not to mention training and competing in the Paralympics. As well as being the Director of the North Dublin City GP Training Scheme, he works as a GP in inner city Dublin  and is the founder and Chair of Safetynet, which provides a free primary care service for the homeless and other vulnerable groups.

Dr O’Carroll explained that he takes time off in blocks for training and over the past two years has spent a full five months perfecting his craft.

“It has been tough on my family, tough on work and tough on the GP Training Scheme. Everybody is incredibly supportive, my partner Dorothy and the kids, the practice has been great and so has the GP Training Scheme and Safetynet. I suppose they know it is a chance in a lifetime and I am having a ball,” he stated.

While it is a huge honour to be a member of the Irish Paralympic Sailing team, Dr O’Carroll said that the two most important things for him have been the opportunity to hone his skills as a sailor and to improve his fitness levels.

As a result of all the training he has lost 15 kilos in weight and has greatly increased his walking distance, all of which are of huge personal importance, as he was born with foreshortened legs as a result of his mother taking thalidomide in pregnancy. 

“Gaining in fitness has been hugely advantageous, probably one of the bigger benefits. I was more unsteady on the boat… sometimes I have to go front of deck… and you can easily fall off. The first few times I would feel really unsteady, now I am much more confident,” he explained.

Training Scheme

Back on dry land, Dr O’Carroll’s GP Training Scheme is going from strength to strength, with a record number of applications for places received this year.

He said the fact that the Scheme had more than 50 applications this year means that young doctors are “interested in making a difference”.

An exciting spin-off from the innovative GP Training Scheme is the establishment of the first brand new GP practice in Summerhill in north inner city Dublin earlier this year

“It is inspiring. It is a good news story about doctors not being money-focused,” he said.

The Dublin North Inner City Specialist Training Programme in General Practice was established in 2009, with a focus on training GPs to work in areas of social deprivation. As a testament to the success of the Scheme, Dr O’Carroll explained that a large number of the graduates are currently working in areas of deprivation with marginalised groups. These include in prisons, methadone clinics and with homeless services.

In fact, he revealed that Senator Lynn Ruane is currently examining the work of the Training Scheme in an effort to transfer the model into teacher training.

“Senator Lynn Ruane wants to create an educational training scheme, the same as our GP training scheme, to train teachers to work in areas of deprivation with marginalised groups,” he explained. 

Deprivation

Another exciting spin-off from the innovative GP Training Scheme is the establishment of the first brand new GP practice in Summerhill in north inner city Dublin earlier this year.

One of the reasons for establishing the Scheme was to encourage GPs to work in areas of deprivation as, much like the situation with rural locations in Ireland, typically these areas lack GP practices. Dr O’Carroll explained that, for example, there are no GPs located in west Finglas in Dublin, which he noted is a very large area, the size of Mullingar.

He said that while the Scheme was providing lots of newly-minted GPs who are keen to work in areas of social deprivation, there are no GP practices in these areas for the young GPs to join. Therefore he came up with the idea for Safetynet to raise funds from philanthropic organisations to establish new practices in these areas.

“We go in. I have the expertise to start it. We do the management, pay the GPs, and hire the premises and when the practice becomes profitable we give the GPs the option of buying us out or staying working for it. We take the profit and reinvest that money in developing new practices in other areas of need,” Dr O’Carroll explained.

Continuing, he said the plan is to gradually build a network of practices in these areas of deprivation so the GPs coming out of the Scheme have practices to work in and these areas are also getting a much-needed GP service.

The first practice in Summerhill had registered 300 patients at the end of May and the aim is to have 1,000 patients signed up for the practice to be self-sufficient by the end of the year.

Safetynet

Coupled with his work on the Scheme, Dr O’Carroll is also kept busy with the work of Safetynet, a charity established in 2007, which provides a free primary care service for the homeless and other vulnerable groups in Dublin from a mobile health unit.

Run in partnership with Dublin Simon, the unit also provides harm reduction, needle exchange and counselling services to people experiencing homelessness across Dublin city. In 2015, the unit carried out almost 1,000 GP consultations.

According to Peter, who experienced homelessness for several months and accessed the mobile health unit every week, “my feet were quite bad from all the walking I did… it was someone who would listen and care. Your health and your wellbeing is everything, especially when you’re dealing with homelessness. You couldn’t get that service anywhere else. People on the streets would be lost without it”.

While he has been busy gaining his sea legs in time for Rio, Dr O’Carroll has also been putting his skills as a keen cyclist to good use recently to raise funds for the organisation. He joined more than 200 people in a cyclathon on a rainy Saturday in May in Dublin city. The cyclists took over South King Street where, using 20 stationary bikes, they collectively cycled 3,400km in 12 hours; the same distance the charity’s mobile health unit covers in a year.   

The event was hugely successful and managed to raise an impressive €35,000 towards the cost of a replacement mobile health clinic for the Safetynet service.

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Dr Austin O’Carroll and Mr John Twomey

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