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Francis G. O'Connor. (Member Profile).

It seems LTC Francis G. O'Connor, M.D., FACSM, loves a challenge. The Associate Professor of Family Medicine, himself a father of three, is riding the AMAA bus to the start of the 107th running of the Boston Marathon, his third stab at 26.2 miles to date.

At 44, O'Connor has accomplished quite a bit. He is the director of Sports Medicine at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, MD, where he runs the Primary Care Sports Medicine Fellowship. He is, of course, a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. And he recently became a Board member of both AMAA and the American Medical Society of Sports Medicine. His Textbook of Running Medicine (2001) is a comprehensive tome with contributions from an enormous array of physicians and clinicians with various areas of expertise in the rapidly expanding field of sports medicine. And in between he has been race director of the Army 10-Miler, as well as a frequent speaker and co-chairperson of the AMAA Sports Medicine Symposium at the Marine Corps Marathon.

But on this bright, sunny day in April he recognizes ambition alone may not take him the whole distance. "The winter absolutely devastated my training plan," he admits good-naturedly. "With the snow it was very tough to get any kind of mileage. I got a couple of thirteens, a fair number of nines, and one eighteen--which was unbearable. So my only goal today," he pauses and lowers his voice, "is to finish this race."

Nevertheless, as a sports medicine physician, O'Connor knows the value of running. And if he has not exactly lived his life leading up to racing the marathon distance, he has consistently and enthusiastically incorporated running into his overly-booked schedule for years. "I run between 12 and 20 miles a week I do it for mental health," he says. "There's a lake by my house that's a five-mile loop. I really love it. I don't know what I'd do if I couldn't run that lake."

As sanity-preserving as running five miles a day clearly can be, by contrast the bus out to rural Hopkinton tends to call into focus the sheer lunacy of marathon day: We drop off our friends and loved ones several towns over, then take a 45-minute bus ride home while they run back. With two Marine Corps Marathons behind him, the good doctor knows what he's getting into. "Using the Galloway method I dropped 40 minutes off my time to p.r. in 1996 with a 4:04. But my real claim to fame," he says with a smile, "is getting beat by Oprah Winfrey in '94. So much for my bathroom pitstop."

Pulling an Ironman cap from his bag, O'Connor explains, "Today, I'm running for [Assistant Fellowship Director and AMAA member] Fred Brennan. "He gave me this cap. As an Army major, he's ten miles outside of Bagdad right now. When it gets tough I'm going to be thinking of Fred. We hope he gets home soon."

As the bus at last arrived in Hopkinton, O'Connor exuded an easygoing confidence not without humility--or humor--and discussed what drew him to sports medicine in the first place.

Early Exposure to Health and Fitness

Born and raised in Syracuse, NY, where his father worked in medical billing and his mother was an L.P.N., O'Connor's environment exposed him to medicine and health care from a young age. Beginning in second grade, however, his specific passion was gymnastics. Later as a high school athlete, he once attended a gymnastics camp at West Point. The experience had a significant impact on him. "I just thought it was a phenomenal school," says O'Connor, who, though still quite interested in gymnastics, had begun to consider a career in medicine. "I saw there was a window of opportunity where you could go to West Point and still go to medical school." Like a true gymnast, he jumped at the chance.

O'Connor spent four years at West Point as a collegiate gymnast, specializing in the pommel horse. His time in the Army notwithstanding, he was never really a runner back then. But his regular interaction with team physicians and trainers helped further his desire to become a doctor. In a strange twist that reminds him of how far he's come, a trainer who once treated the young athlete for an ankle injury turned up two years ago as a fellow in his sports medicine program.

After West Point, Fran attended Syracuse Medical School, where he met his wife, Janet. He trained in family medicine, she in anesthesiology. It wasn't long, however, before Fran had his first contact with sports medicine. He explains, "As a second-year medical student I had to work with a family doctor in the community, and I was selected to work with Dr. Sam Paris." Paris, a long-time member of AMAA and even then well-known in the field of sports medicine, was an early role model, and O'Connor's introduction to sports medicine from a family practice perspective.

At that time primary care sports medicine was still largely based in orthopedics, but was beginning to emerge as a specialty O'Connor performed fourth-year rotations as both an orthopedic surgeon and as a family doctor. He felt drawn to patient care as opposed to the operating room.

An Introduction to AMAA

After completing his three-year payback to the Army at Fort Dix in NJ, O'Connor and his wife moved to Arlington, VA so he could join a primary care sports medicine fellowship at the Nirschl Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Clinic. In 1991 Dr. Nirschl invited him to deliver a 10-minute introduction at the AMAA Sports Medicine Symposium at the Marine Corps Marathon. He has been involved with AMAA ever since.

O'Connor went to work in the family practice program at Dewitt Army Community Hospital, where he at last put sports medicine and primary care together. Janet worked as an anesthesiologist right up until four years ago, when the obligations of a growing family took center stage.

After speaking at the October AMAA medical meeting for a number of years, O'Connor now serves as co-chairperson along with Scott Pyne, M.D., the immediate past-medical director of the Marine Corps Marathon. He says that he is privileged to be working with such great people in the organization. "I really enjoy my affiliation with AMAA. They've created the opportunities for me." He humbly adds, "I haven't done anything for them, really, other than help coordinate a wonderful meeting."

While O'Connor was in Dr. Nirschl's program in the early 90s, AMAA member Robert Wilder, M.D., FACSM, joined him through a one-month rotation. The following year, Wilder began his own fellowship at the clinic. O'Connor explains, "That was when we started writing together, and started to dream about a running medicine text."

Genesis of a Textbook

It would be five years and a lot of hard work, but two years ago, that dream became a reality. The Textbook of Running Medicine was completed and after two rejections during the search for a publisher, O'Connor turned to his contacts at The Physician and Sportsmedicine, the primary care monthly journal published by McGrawHill. He got a name, met with them in the New York office and the rest is running--and medical--history.

Together with his co-editor, Wilder, O'Connor has compiled a vast reference source for physicians treating everything from patellofemoral pain to exercise-induced asthma. He co-authored four of the book's chapters as well, including explorations of such varied topics as video gait analysis and cardiovascular considerations. The book even has a chapter on aqua running, Wilder's area of expertise.

There is a section on pediatrics, which is particularly relevant now as the nation's health care professionals work harder than ever to get kids off the couch and onto the track. Overuse injuries are O'Connor's area of interest, and the book addresses such injuries within that age group. Although there is an undisputed need to aggressively promote physical activity among children, there are as yet few reliable recommendations on age-appropriate mileage and related matters for young runners. "We see a lot of kids in our sports medicine clinic," O'Connor says. "I recently saw a nine-year-old soccer player with a herniated disk. I'm seeing stress fractures in 10and 11-year-olds, which are almost unheard of. Kids are not little adults, but a lot of them are trained by parents who are not knowledgeable and use adult training regimens for them."

His own three children, all boys--Ryan, 12, Sean, 8 and Brendan, 7-are themselves involved in a surprising number of sports activities, including soccer, basketball, Tae Kwon Do and lacrosse. "All three are runners, and my wife too," Fran proudly says. Janet, a former sprinter for Thfts University, now manages the elementary school track team for her boys in Fairfax. Sean recently placed first in the mile among 3rd graders.

Looking Down the Road

With forecasts predicting showers and highs in the mid-50s, the balmy 70 degrees the 20,255 Boston marathoners contended with on April 21 was a surprise to say the least. In spite of this and his limited training regimen in the weeks prior, O'Connor completed his third marathon without injury or incident in a respectable 4:43. Perhaps we'll see him coming up the hill on Commonwealth Avenue again next year, but for now it's back to work in the ever-growing field of sports medicine he loves.

What's next? There are several more books in the works, including a role as coeditor of the third edition of Sports Medicine for the Primary Care Physician and co-author of a new sports medicine text for the McGraw-Hill series, Just the Facts.

In a way, O'Connor's rehabilitation of runners and their myriad injuries puts him on the front lines of battle in the general prevention movement in health care, as running is increasingly being touted as beneficial to bone mineral density maintenance and cardiovascular health. He is helping the entire body, well, run more smoothly.

"I've always been very interested in exercising adults, and keeping people healthy. I love taking care of runners," O'Connor admits. "They're a lot of fun, and they're challenging. It's very rewarding to put somebody back on the roads." Indeed, it seems LIC Francis G. O'Connor, M.D., FACSM, loves a challenge.

Jeff Venables is the editor of Running & FitNews, the publication of the American Running Association.
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Author:Venables, Jeff
Publication:AMAA Journal
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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