Often when we celebrate women in sport, we focus solely on their on field achievements but Kildare woman Caoimhe Keoghegan, shows players are just as capable of blazing a trail off the field, as on it.
The childhood dream for Keoghegan was to pursue a career in medicine, but often in life, the script doesn’t always play out as planned. Now a senior consultant with Ernst & Young, Keoghegan’s journey from the science labs of UCD to the doors of one of the world’s largest professional services firms, has been an interesting one. After completing a degree in Biomedical Sciences in UCD, the Enfield native soon realised it was no longer her goal to become a doctor. “I just came to the realisation it wasn’t what I wanted, so I finished the course in Biomedical sciences and got a scholarship to do a research masters. I hadn’t figured out what I wanted to do so I did a research masters in tissue engineered heart valves, so that’s basically for kids who are born with congenital heart disease.”
Ironically, six months after Keoghegan completed her masters in heart valve engineering, she herself was diagnosed with a heart condition called Atrial fibrillation. Rare in people her age, the condition causes episodes of irregular and often abnormally fast heart rate, in Keoghegan’s case, up to 250 beats per minute at any given time. Initial bouts of dizziness led to extensive testing which resulted in a shock diagnosis for the then Kildare footballer. “About six months after I finished my masters in heart valve engineering, I nearly fainted making dinner one day and I thought it was because of the hunger but it turned out to be something far more serious.”
Naturally with sport being such an integral part of Keoghegan’s life, when it looked like she might have to stop playing permanently, it was hard to fathom, but Keoghegan refused to give up on her dual gaelic football and camogie career. “The doctor told me look, you mightn’t be able to play at that level anymore, you’ll still have a bit of gym or whatever but I was determined that wasn’t going to happen. Team sport is part of who I am so that was very tough at the time but we just had to wait and figure it out properly.”
“The doctor told me I had to take six months out, so the club All-Ireland with my camogie club, Johnstownbridge was the last game I played for a while.”
Thankfully, Keoghegan returned to competitive sport after a four month lay off and now has the condition under control but admits, it was a difficult journey. “It was one of those things like you are not in control of it, I didn’t get a choice in it. I had a bit of a complex, I said why me, I’m fit, I train, I am young, like typically people in their late 70’s get it. It was complete torture and it was very hard for my family and my boyfriend because I was inconsolable, I was fairly frustrated and I tried my best not to take it out on everybody around me but at the same time, I wasn’t taking it out on the wall so it was tough.”
“But look it was a learning point and the best outcome from it was I learned to take control over my own body. I have managed to work with it and I now understand what triggers these episodes and I can manage it through my lifestyle.”
A couple of months before Keoghegan received the shock diagnosis she had decided that a life as a research academic wasn’t for her. An extrovert by nature, the Balyna club woman, thrived on social interaction and decided to seek a career that would link her outgoing ways with her passion for pharmacology. In September 2015 she took a leap of faith and migrated to Aberdeen, Scotland to begin a Pharmacy course. “It really was a leap of faith and I just said I would go for it. It was a big risk for me, I was 24 heading over to take on another four year degree plus a mandatory year in Scotland which was mental on reflection. But I got over and Aberdeen was the coldest, greyest, darkest, and loneliest place I had ever been. I only lasted 12 weeks, I just found I was really lonely and I didnt have the things that I wanted around me which was my family, and my teammates.”
Keoghegan still grapples with the disappointment of her failed pursuit of a Pharmacy degree, but the life lessons she takes from the experience by far outweigh the negatives and ultimately, set her own the path to where she is now. “Look, that’s a chance that didn’t work out but in life you have to take chances. I dont believe its a path that’s paved for you, I think you have to figure it out but you can’t do that without just saying yeah sure, I’ll give it a go.”
Not one to hang around, Keoghegan soon bounced back from her unsuccessful stint in Scotland and found herself back in UCD, working for the UCD Ocular Pharmacology group. Keoghegan’s responsibilities varied from drug development for people with inherited forms of blindness, to facilitating career development events, which led to her current role, a senior consultant with EY. “I organised a career development day and there was a partner in from EY giving a talk. I just said right, everyone else is getting career stuff out of this, my contract is coming to an end, so I’ll just ask the question, what is consulting? Just over three months later I started in EY.”
Having the courage to ask one simple question put Keoghegan on the path to a career she now gleans a huge amount of fulfillment and satisfaction from. Also a career she never envisaged herself pursuing, but therein lies the beauty of taking a chance. “Anybody in their early career struggle to kind of say, well where do I actually go? Particularly with a left field degree, you may not have a defined career path. Not that it’s easy for an accountant, or a physio, or a nurse and so on but you have defined career paths there. I just think in science that’s not as defined as it could be. I definitely wasn’t aware of the opportunities that were there for me.”
“My overwhelming message is to just take the chance, some of them will work out, like EY has worked out for me, some of them won’t; Aberdeen did not, but have the confidence to take that chance and put yourself out there for whatever those opportunities are.”
Keoghegan’s role involves a significant amount of work around leadership development and when an opportunity came up to undertake the Jim Madden Leadership Programme, Keoghegan jumped at it. “With EY, it’s a competitive environment and they are always looking for you to develop yourself, particularly in my team, the People Advisory Services, women in leadership and women in power are really promoted and EY have been really good, they have given me the time to go and do the Jim Madden Leadership Programme which I think is a really good opportunity for me. I could just see there is potential for good development from it from the people I know who have done it and it was a brilliant opportunity.”
“What I like about the programme so far is it’s not even about sport or profession, it’s about you as an individual and that’s the bit I have taken the most from. Obviously I have had my own challenges with the heart condition and so on, and being comfortable in your own skin is something the programme has forced me to do. It’s a really safe environment to be very open about yourself and your personal development as well as professional, it’s been really good so far and i’m really looking forward to the rest of it.”
Caoimhe was speaking with Lisa Crowley for wgpa.ie.