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The “Godfather of Sports Medicine” provides exertional illness lecture at NW Arkansas

By Leanne Thomas, 5th Medical Recruiting Battalion 5th Medical Recruiting Battalion

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Northwest Arkansas teamed up with the U.S. Army medical recruiting station of Little Rock to host a special guest lecture on preventing exertional illnesses in athletes and warriors, late summer.

 

Dr. Thomas K. Schulz, the director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at the University of Arkansas Northwest, selected the topic after reading a news article that sparked concern.

 

“I read in the Chicago Tribune, when I was traveling back home from a meeting a couple of months ago, that two naval recruits, who may have had sickle cell trait, died at Great Lakes Naval Station,” said Schulz. “I got to thinking, ‘Well, what are we doing for our athletes at the University of Arkansas and athletes in our high schools who may have sickle cell trait? And how do we screen and best care for these individuals? Capt. McMurray set up this wonderful lecture that addressed these questions because I want our medical students to be aware.”

 

Capt. Tashima McMurray, officer-in-charge at the U.S. Army Little Rock Medical Recruiting Station, arranged for retired Army Col. (Dr.) Francis G. O'Connor to serve as the guest speaker at the Northwest Arkansas Regional campus. O'Connor is a professor in Military and Emergency Medicine and the medical director for the Consortium on Health and Military Performance (CHAMP), Uniformed Services University (USU).

 

The lecture brought together over 150 attendees to the Northwest Arkansas Regional campus, which included medical residents, sports medicine undergraduate students, master's-level students studying to be athletic trainers, faculty members, and community stakeholders and physicians from Mercy Hospital Northwest Arkansas and the Veterans Health Care System of the Ozarks.

 

“When the internal medicine residents heard that O’Connor would be the guest speaker for the lecture, they were excited because he is known as the ‘Godfather of Sports Medicine,’” stated McMurray.

 

O’Connor, a family medicine physician, was one of the first in primary care practitioner to go to a sports medicine fellowship in the military. He has been a leader in sports medicine and research for over 30 years. Most recently, he served as a senior editor of the comprehensive introductory textbook for the military medical officer titled, “Fundamentals of Military Medical Practice,” recently published by the Borden Institute. He is also editor of four other textbooks on sports medicine.

 

“I went to West Point, where I was a gymnast, and I have always been interested in exercise-related complaints and physical fitness,” O’Connor said.

 

At O’Connor’s first duty assignment at Fort Dix, New Jersey, he encountered a sickle cell trait death in a patient. This led him to research exertional illnesses more extensively.

 

“In the U.S. military, we take care of a big team and we have to protect them,” O’Connor stated to the Northwest Arkansas attendees during the lecture. “You take care of the team here at the University of Arkansas … and I think all of us as primary care physicians, interns, family doctors, residents … we’re there to take care of people, so we need to be familiar with these strategies.”

 

During the lecture, O’Connor reviewed five individual cases that included service members and collegiate athletes - basketball and football players. He then discussed the most common forms of exertional illness, the latest research, and preventive strategies such as heat acclimatization, hydration, pre-participation screenings, knowing the risk factors, the buddy system, cooling strategies, incorporating a detailed emergency action plan into athletic training programs, and making the “call” to cancel events when it is too hot and humid outside.

 

“I think this is a really important topic for the residents today because exertional heat illness is on the rise, particularly exertional heat stroke,” O’Connor explained. “It is major concern … for the military and the NCAA. So that’s why this lecture is important because they’re the ones in charge of prevention.”

 

O'Connor concluded the lecture by sharing a little bit about himself and his passion for serving in the military.

 

One of the most rewarding parts of his career was when he engaged with the line units and served as the command surgeon for Special Operations in the Middle East.

 

“As I mentioned, I have done 36 years in uniform, absolutely loved it," he said. "I continue to serve in the military as a DoD employee, and I think in this day in age where we have a real issue in burnout with physicians. The military has never been a job for me – it has always been a lot of fun, there is a lot of variety. I would say that anybody new coming into the military, the most important thing to do is not just practice medicine, but engage with the line and with the warfighters. I was deployed twice overseas and the most fun, the most rewarding part in my career was when I engaged with the line. You don’t want to miss it, that’s what it’s all about.”