By Carly Day, MD
AMSSM Past President Francis O’Connor, MD, MPH, was honored by The University of Connecticut’s Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) for his significant contribution to preventing sudden death in sports. The inaugural KSI Lifesaving Awards were presented at NFL Headquarters in New York City on September 4, 2012. The Institute is named after a former Minnesota Vikings lineman who died of exertional heat stroke in 2001, and provides information, resources, assistance and advocacy for the prevention of sudden death in sports.
So, how did Dr. O’Connor, Medical Director of the Consortium for Health and Military Performance, get to where he is today? After completing a family medicine residency in 1988, he worked at Walson Army Community Hospital in Fort Dix, New Jersey. A few years later, he did a primary care sports medicine fellowship at the Nirschl Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center in Arlington, Virginia. This training allowed him to become Director of Primary Care Sports Medicine at Dewitt Army Community Hospital, and eventually he became the Director of Primary Care Sports Medicine at Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS) in Bethesda, Maryland. During the course of his career, he has served as a Board member and President for the AMSSM as well as serving on the Board for the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Medical Athletic Association. He is a prolific researcher with more than 60 scientific journal publications, 25 book chapters and numerous national and international presentations.
Dr. O’Connor won the KSI Lifesaving Research Award due to his extensive work with the U.S. Military dealing with the prevention, recognition and treatment of exertional heat stroke, sickle cell trait related conditions and cardiovascular issues. He was instrumental in helping develop new U.S. Army guidelines for return to duty following exertional heat stroke. He believes that the military has the ability to capture a large amount of data which can significantly contribute to science moving forward. Lessons learned from this information could then be applied to athletes and advance the field of sports medicine.
He got interested in sudden death research during his first assignment in the military at Fort Dix. One of his family medicine patients, a drill sergeant, died of exertional collapse associated with sickle cell trait. He was inspired by the work of Dr. John Kark on heat illness and sickle cell trait. Dr. O’Connor has written extensively on this topic and a couple of his recent publications are must-reads. A 2010 Clinics in Sports Medicine article titled “Exertional Collapse in the Runner: Evaluation and Management in Fieldside and Office-Based Settings”outlines the etiology and pathophysiology of collapse as well as strategies for the effective assessment and treatment of collapsed runners. Also, a recent MSSE article “ACSM and CHAMP Summit on SCT: Mitigating Risks for Warfighters and Athletes”, highlights the importance of future research to help us understand the implications of sickle cell trait.
Dr. O’Connor believes primary care sports medicine doctors are uniquely positioned to make a difference in prevention of sudden death in athletes. This can be done through case reports, data collection, original research and accurately performing pre-participation physicals. We can also educate the public on the use of AEDs and the importance of knowing the location of the closest AED during all sporting events. However, Dr. O’Connor emphasizes that sudden death is humbling. The leading cause of sudden death in the military is “unexplained”. He points out that hot issues include screening EKGs and sickle cell trait testing as well as the possible role of medications and supplements in sudden death. He also believes there may be a future use of cardiac ultrasound in the clinic and training room if the appropriate skill level is present in sports medicine practitioners.
The conclusions and opinions in this news article should not be interpreted as official statements of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine.