Los Angeles, Calif., Oct 26, 2021 / 18:39 pm (CNA).
A neurologist who responded to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York City in 2020 has been awarded this year’s Catholic Doctor of the Year Award.
Major Daniel E. O’Connell, MD, MPH, received the award Oct. 26 during the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Mass for Catholic Healthcare Professionals.
“Dan had shared his journey at the height of COVID in New York, and his service really stood out,” said Elise Frederick, Executive Director of the Mission Doctors Association, which bestows the award.
“Being able to let one’s faith lead in an environment where you are surrounded by others who share your faith is one thing, but doing so, quietly witnessing your values in such critical and challenging times takes a true leader.”
O’Connell was raised in the Catholic Church, and he said his Catholic faith is integral to his medical career.
“I certainly cannot see myself doing medicine without my Catholic Christian foundation,” he said. “I think that is a major driver— if not the ultimate driver— for me doing it, because I can’t imagine being a physician without that foundation.”
He attended public schools until medical school.
“I specifically sought out a Catholic medical school, which I think is somewhat unique in the modern era,” O’Connell said. “I never had that Catholic school experience, and…I wanted my grounding as a physician to be of Catholic origin.”
He attended medical school at the University of Loyola in Chicago. O’Connell said he found that Loyola emphasized ethical treatment of patients, with a grounding in Catholic spirituality.
He recalled the first day of an anatomy class. Medical students learn anatomy from individuals who have donated their bodies postmortem to the school. O’Connell remembers a Catholic priest blessed the cadavers, and prayed for the souls of the individuals who had donated their bodies.
“And there was a pledge to treat these cadavers … with the utmost respect,” O’Connell said. “I thought that was a great initial grounding, moving forward in our training as physicians with that Catholic mindset of respecting the human person, the dignity of the human person.”
Today, O’Connell is a practicing neurologist, with a specialization in neuro-oncology and pain management. He is also a medical officer in the U.S. Air Force Reserves.
He first got involved in the military in college, through Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. After college, O’Connell enrolled in the Individual Ready Reserve.
His first assignment with the IRR was in 2019 to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, in response to a shortage of medical personnel in the state.
On April 4, 2020, O’Connell was asked to deploy within 24 hours to New York City, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He met with other reservists at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.
“And from there, within a day’s time or so, we took buses up to a deserted Times Square,” he said.
O’Connell was familiar with New York City, because he did his internship in internal medicine at New York Medical College.
“It [did] not even feel like New York,” he said. “It totally changed my perception of the city. It was a ghost town when we arrived, and entirely deserted.”
O’Connell assumed he would serve at the Javits Convention Center, which had been converted into a makeshift hospital for COVID-19 patients. But active duty military were helping to run that.
“The greatest need turned out to be in the surrounding community hospitals, and the various boroughs of New York City, which are extremely dense in population, and — especially in areas where we were assigned— are disproportionately impacted by the COVID crisis for a number of reasons,” he said.
O’Connell was assigned to serve at Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx, which he said was the second-most hit hospital in the city at the time. His work was limited to the ninth floor, which was a medical surgical unit that had been converted into a medical ICU.
He said the floor had about 30 rooms that held about 60 patients. He remembers the hospital drilled holes into the walls for wires to pass through from patients in the rooms to machines in the hallway.
“That’s how sort of desperate the situation was,” O’Connell said. “Temporary ventilators had to be put into the rooms, and they had to put IV lines— because there was no space in the rooms themselves, they’re not built to be a medical ICU — in the hallway outside.”
O’Connell is a neurologist, but his training included a year of internal medicine and three years of inpatient neurology. Still, he wasn’t certain how his skill set would translate to the needs of the patients before him.
“I did not know what to expect initially, but I was assigned to a floor team along with residents,” he said. “And, believe me, the last thing I wanted was to be a resident again. For anyone who knows anything about medicine, they can understand why. It was certainly a humbling experience.”
“The nurses and the respiratory therapists, in my opinion, did the bulk of the work, because the care [was] largely supportive.”
He said the majority of his time was spent doing essentially grunt medical work, though he did perform the occasional neurology exam. Between four and six days a week, O’Connell would check on patients, and help treat any conditions they suffered in addition to COVID-19. Many of his initial patients were older, and had medical conditions that were frequently exacerbated by the coronavirus.
O’Connell spent two months at Lincoln Hospital in New York City, and he estimates several dozen of his patients died from COVID-19 related respiratory compromise, or from worsening comorbidities in the setting of COVID-19 infection, during that time. By the end of his deployment, the number of COVID-19 patients on his floor had dropped substantially, allowing for a smooth transition of military reservists out of the hospital.
It has been more than a year since O’Connell’s deployment for the COVID-19 pandemic, and he is still processing the experience.
“My analogy is the 100 year flood,” he said. “It’s something that you don’t expect at all, but that you try to have some level of preparation for.”
“But one of the reasons why I joined the military reserves is to have an opportunity to assist, should something like this happen, as a military medical doctor.”
O’Connell said he struggled to accept the Catholic Doctor of the Year Award, because he believes respiratory therapists and nurses were the true heroes of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he dedicated the award to them.
“They’re really the ones assisting us with the COVID crisis, because…there is no cure for COVID, so to speak,” he said. “There’s no treatment that you can give, in real time, for an acute COVID infection that will kill the virus immediately. Because of that, the needs are one of making the patients as otherwise healthy as possible, to diminish the likelihood of multisystem organ failure and other comorbidities.”
Still, O’Connell hopes his witness will encourage other doctors to let their faith guide their careers.
“Serving in a mission doctor capacity doesn’t always mean traveling to the opposite side of the world, to a remote location and helping individuals,” he said. “You can also do that locally.”
Mission Doctors Association will begin accepting nominations for its 2022 Catholic Doctor of the Year Award in January.
Past recipients of the Catholic Doctor of the Year Award include general surgeon and active missionary sister, Sr. Deirdre Byrne, who was a first responder on 9/11; and Dr. Tom Catena, a Catholic international missionary doctor. The award was given to ‘All Catholic Healthcare Workers’ in 2020.
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