The Forrest Gump Life of An Extraordinary Family Physician
U.S. Army Retired Colonel Kevin O’Connor, D.O., F.A.A.F.P.
“I’m on Air Force One right now, preparing to land in the UK for the G7, so I will be out of pocket for a week or so, but we can knock out that interview as soon as I get back. Once I have a chance to look at my full calendar, I’ll send you a couple choices of block times. Thanks very much!” Very Respectfully, Kevin
Doctors are very busy people, and our staff at Physician Outlook sometimes has trouble scheduling mutually convenient times when researching and fact-checking articles. We had an especially tough time coordinating with one Family Practice physician who is featured in our Military and Medicine issue, but as can be garnered from his email response above (dated June 9, 2021), he had some compelling reasons for being difficult to pin down:
“Kevin,” the author of this email, is Dr. Kevin O’Connor, F.A.A.F.P., a physician who we’ve wanted to feature in Physician Outlook Magazine since he became the Medical Director for the Franciscan Health Care Professions Program (FHCP) at Saint Bonaventure University, where I have the privilege of working my “day job” as the Medical Director for the Center for Student Wellness.
The combined-degree FHCP program fosters talented and dedicated young adults through the field of medicine. Bright, motivated high school students are guaranteed provisional entry into medical school upon admission to the university, and by the time they are college sophomores they are officially accepted into the medical school where they will receive their D.O. or M.D.
Early-admission and combined-degree programs afford pre-med students the opportunity to become more well-rounded human beings while they are undergraduates, without the pressure of having to apply to and interview at many different medical schools.
Dr. O’Connor is a 1988 graduate of St. Bonaventure University, in rural Allegany, New York, where he majored in Biology with a minor in Theology; a 1992 graduate of the New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine in Old Westbury, New York; a 1995 graduate of a Family Medicine residency at (Hackensack Meridian Health) Mountainside Hospital in Montclair, New Jersey, (where he served as Chief Resident his last year), and he currently holds a faculty appointment at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C.
Spoiler Alert: He’s Kind of A Big Deal
As founder and publisher of Physician Outlook Magazine, I love highlighting the stories of interesting doctors as a way of inspiring others to carry the healthcare baton into the future, and to also show some much-needed love and respect to a profession that for many has become increasingly devalued. Dr. O’Connor’s story is an inspiring one that needs to be told.
Dr. O’Connor was indeed on Air Force One on his way to London for the G7 Summit (and not delusional!) when we were playing email and phone “tag” last summer.
“Physician-in-Chief” to the “Commander-in-Chief”
In January of 2021, retired Colonel Kevin O’Connor, D.O., was honored to be officially commissioned as the “P2P,” or the “Physician to the President,” by President Biden. He is supported by the White House Medical Unit (WHMU) which provides 24/7 worldwide emergency action response and comprehensive medical care to President Biden, Vice President Harris, and their families.
The WHMU (pronounced “WH-AM-u”) is responsible for tactical coordination with the U.S. Secret Service and the White House Military Office to create and execute detailed medical contingency plans. This unit is also responsible for providing emergency care to the many pre-pandemic annual visitors to the White House, including dignitaries from other countries. For the past two years, the WHMU has also been instrumental in the White House COVID-19 mitigation strategy.
Being appointed to the role of the nation’s “First Physician” probably did not come as a big surprise to Dr. O’Connor, who has been providing primary care for the Biden family since 2009, when he was appointed as “P2VP” or “Physician to the Vice President.” O’Connor was physician for the “Second Family” for the two terms of the Obama presidency, and after leaving office in 2017, Vice President Biden asked Dr. O’Connor to stay on as the family’s primary care Family Physician.
Simply Extraordinary: “The Forrest Gump of Military Medicine”
Dr. O’Connor is one of the most down-to-earth, unassuming “badass” doctors I have ever had the pleasure of interviewing. He has jumped out of airplanes, visited more than 75 countries, has served in top secret Special Ops missions, and has helped to change the way life-threatening injuries and their resultant wounds are managed in active combat situations, to name just a few of his accomplishments.
In an American Academy of Family Physicians article titled “FP Reflects on Service on Front Lines of Family Medicine,” Dr. O’Connor jokingly referred to himself as “the Forrest Gump of Military Medicine … a simple man who just found himself in extraordinary circumstances and didn’t screw up.”
Dr. O’Connor’s curriculum vitae is impressive. During his tenure with the Army, he served as a Family Physician, a flight surgeon, an instructor and a hyperbaric medical officer for some of the nation’s most elite units, including the 82nd Airborne Division, the 75th Ranger Regiment as well as serving in a special missions unit within the United States Army Special Operations Command. O’Connor was also instrumental in re-designing Department of Defense trauma procedures to develop innovative strategies for addressing the unique needs of wounded Soldiers in hostile, non-permissive combat settings.
Politics: Proudly Non-Partisan
Dr. O’Connor was selected into the WHMU in 2006 during the Bush-Cheney Administration. He was part of a team that provided urgent, immediate and emergency medical care as needed to the President, the Vice President and their families on nights and weekends, and on any trips outside of Washington D.C. In 2009, Dr. O’Connor’s original plan had been to stay on as a “utility player” for only 6 months, as an average WHMU tour of duty is typically 3 years. His heart was still overseas with the war fighters, and he wanted to return to his friends in Special Operations.
Six months ended up turning into the entire eight years of the Obama administration after he was asked by then Vice President Biden to become the Second Family’s personal physician. It was the excellent care and support that O’Connor provided to Biden’s beloved mother Jean that sealed his fate. O’Connor was just beginning his time with President Biden when she fell at her home in Delaware on a weekend in March of 2009, breaking her hip. O’Connor responded up to Delaware, coordinated her admission to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital in nearby Philadelphia, where she was operated on by Dr. Samir Mehta, the Chief of the Division of Orthopedic Trauma and Fracture Care at Penn Medicine.
Dr. Samir Mehta Chief of Ortho at Penn Med
“Dr. O’Connor is the consummate professional. It was a very collaborative relationship. In some of these unique patient care scenarios, doctors sometimes start to cross into another specialties’ expertise. That was not the case with Kevin at all. He “let me be” the orthopod, and I very much appreciated that. He is absolutely the kind of physician I would want to care for a family member (or the President of the United States).
Dr. O’Connor left the WHMU in 2017 after having served in that unit for 11 ½ years, retiring from the Army to enter civilian life and practice Family and Executive Medicine. At their request, he continued to provide primary medical care to the Biden family privately through his office at GW Medical Faculty Associates, where he was hired as Founding Director of Executive Medicine.
We could all take a lesson from how Dr. O’Connor practices medicine and fulfills his obligations free of partisanship. In fact, several years ago when he was interviewed by his medical school alma mater (New York Institute of Technology, College of Osteopathic Medicine, ’92) he is coyly quoted as saying “(Biden) never once asked me if I was a Republican or a Democrat, and I never asked him ... although I (was) pretty sure he was a Democrat.”
“On-Call” 24/7, For Years at a Time
According to an AMA article, taking night or weekend calls increases the odds of burnout by 3 to 9% for each additional night or weekend that a physician is on call.
The role of a White House physician in a pandemic: 24-7, 365 days per year, for years at a time.
Dr. O’Connor does not seem “burnt out,” and takes his unrelenting schedule in stride. When asked if he ever gets any sleep at night, he winks: “Yes, with one eye open.” He credits the highly supported, well-organized, team-based care model at the WHMU for allowing him to do his job. He works with a coordinated, highly talented, hand-picked group of White House physicians, nurses, physician assistants, medics, corpsmen, logisticians and other essential personnel that support the Unit.
The WHMU is truly a model for how all of healthcare should be functioning.
Returning to his Franciscan Roots as a Civilian
When asked by St. Bonaventure University, his undergraduate alma mater, to serve as the Medical Director of the Franciscan Health Care Professions Program in early 2020, Dr. O’Connor eagerly embraced the opportunity. He describes it as an honor to be able to return to his “academic home” and put into practice through the FHCP and its collaboration with the School of Health Professions the Franciscan values of selflessness, benevolence and charity.
He fondly recalls his time on campus where he served as Class President, helping to implement the campus’ newly founded student-run Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), and ultimately receiving his military commission as a Distinguished Military Graduate through the ROTC program.
O’Connor’s military career began serendipitously shortly after he arrived at St. Bonaventure. He was a baby-faced, long-haired teenage freshman from New Jersey who chose to enroll in a Military Science Basic ARMY ROTC elective “as a goof,” with the intention of meeting new people and getting some exercise. The syllabus for the Military Science curriculum explained that students would be taught the fundamentals of leadership and decision-making, skills that he thought would come in handy as a future doctor (he came in as a biology major). The opportunity to engage in individual fitness and unit training utilizing a combination of classroom instruction and hands-on exercises that included land navigation, rappelling and survival skills sounded fun. This elective (that he had initially picked on a “whim”) ended up becoming one of his favorite classes and became a life-altering pivotal touchpoint for O’Connor.
When a recruiter presented to his freshmen class the opportunity to become a cadet and receive a “full ride” 3-year college scholarship through the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC), O’Connor became intrigued. He had grown up in an average, middle class household not far from the Jersey shore. His father was a homicide detective and mom a homemaker. He had a younger sister that would also soon be college-bound. A career in law enforcement is not known for its generous pay, and it was understood that his father’s “cop” salary was not going to finance putting two kids through college. Besides, Kevin aspired to go to medical school, which would be very expensive. He had planned on taking out student loans to pay for his education, but the ROTC scholarship sounded too good to be true.
After hearing about all the outstanding benefits of enlisting and realizing how much he loved the culture of the Army, O’Connor asked his Military Instructor what the next step was…what he needed to do. The recruiter’s answer: “Cut your hair and submit your application.”
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Gift of Military Medicine
What started out as a 4-year commitment to serve his country as a way of paying for college culminated into the opportunity of a lifetime for O’Connor. After being accepted into medical school at the New York Institute of Technology’s College of Osteopathic Medicine he applied to The Health Professions Scholarship Program, not sure at first if he would be funded. It turns out that getting into medical school is much harder than being granted an HPSP award (to read more about Dr. O’Connor’s story applying to medical school please subscribe to Physician Outlook and look for “the scoop” at www.PhysicianOutlook.com).
By the time he completed his civilian Family Practice residency in 1995, O’Connor had signed three separate four-year contracts and “owed” the Army 12 years of service. The truth, however, Dr. O’Connor admits is that he has never felt burdened by any sort of “debt”—in fact, he is forever grateful for the gift of being given the opportunity to serve his country and to fulfill his life-long dream of becoming a servant leader, a physician and a Soldier. “I would have paid them for the opportunities of a lifetime afforded to me throughout my tenure.”
He loved the military so much that he would spend a total of 29 years (22 years in Active Duty) serving our country before retiring as a Colonel.
A Divine Calling: Physician, Teacher, Mentor
Becoming a physician allows those who are called to “do well,” as one “does good,” O’Connor is quoted as saying (when describing the Franciscan Health Care Program at St. Bonaventure University).
“It answers both the community’s call for workforce development and God’s call to always care for those who are suffering.”
O’Connor is passionate about education and remains very active at George Washington University, teaching and mentoring medical students (some of whom come to GW through the St. Bonaventure’s FHCP combined-degree program). He is very proud of St. Bonaventure’s commitment to veteran education and advancement through the Military Aligned Students Program championed by retired Master Sergeant Francisco Morales. Both Morales and O’Connor were inducted into the Seneca Battalion ROTC Hall of Fame in 2019.
When asked (during an interview with fellow veteran Dr. Humayum “Hank” Chaudry of the FSMB) if there was a specific mentor or role model who inspired him to choose Family Medicine as a specialty, O’Connor’s answer is insightful: “nobody, and everybody.” Dr. O’Connor reflected that he liked ALL of his rotations in medical school, but he didn’t love any one specialty so much that he was willing to give up all the rest.
As a Fellow of the American Academy of Family Physicians, O’Connor found his perfect niche. The practice of Family Medicine best suits his personality and ego. He has never felt the need to be “the last word” in any medical situation and appreciates the opportunity to collaborate and ask for help when the situation calls for it.
In his mentoring role with medical students, Dr. O’Connor offers sage advice that is reminiscent of Robert Fulghum’s famous essay “Everything I Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” when children have unabashed zeal for learning new things every day. He recommends to third-year medical students that they identify those times when they approach life as they did when they were 5 years old and to ask parents, siblings, spouse, significant others, friends, and neighbors: “Over the past year, when was I good to be around … when was my ‘best self’?”
Living His Best Life
Dr. O’Connor has found a career that allows him to feel his “best self” ALL the time.
It was inspirational to hear his story first-hand, and an honor that he agreed to be featured exclusively in Physician Outlook. He is usually a very private person who grants very few interviews. His love for St. Bonaventure University and the guiding principles of our shared Franciscan-influenced faith created a mutually trusting relationship.
We clearly have a shared passion for longitudinal patient relationships that value the role of physician as leader of a healthcare team.
That the leader of the free world happens to call him “Doc” and ALSO understands the important role physicians play in healthcare? That is what I call…divine serendipity.
For information about the Franciscan Health Care Professions Program at St. Bonaventure University, contact the Pre-Medicine Admissions Liaison, Chris Scheppner, at 716 375-2413 and/or Monica Thomas, PhD, Faculty Director at 716 375-2656.