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Athletics Opens Doors for Orthopedic Surgeon

Ed Rabinowitz | Wednesday, December 11, 2013
When Mary O’Connor, MD, was in high school there were no athletic teams for girls.
 
“You were a cheerleader, if you were doing anything,” says O’Connor, now professor and chair of the department of orthopedic surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Florida.
 
But that didn’t stop O’Connor, who attended Yale and quickly became hooked on rowing.
 
“It was a fabulous experience for me,” she recalls. “It gave me opportunities that I would never have had otherwise.”
 
And it helped catapult her career.
 
In sports as in life
O’Connor believes that participating in athletics is particularly important for young women “because it teaches girls a lot of the life skills they need in order to be successful in other ventures.”
 
For example, athletics opens doors. O’Connor, as part of the U.S. rowing team, went to Yugoslavia in 1979 to train for the 1980 Olympics.
 
“I wouldn’t have gotten to Europe otherwise,” she says.
 
The success O’Connor had in rowing helped her to be unique, to stand out, she says. When she applied for the orthopedic residency program at the Mayo Clinic, the majority of ht people making decisions were male and they could relate to her athletic achievement.
 
“That was a plus for me,” she explains. “And it makes a difference, because I didn’t get into just any orthopedic residency program. I got into one of the best programs in the country.”
 
Sports also taught O’Connor how to handle disappointment. As a member of the U.S. Olympic rowing team in 1980, she was denied a chance to compete when the U.S. boycotted the summer games in Moscow in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. She kept it all in perspective.
 
“You learn how to be competitive, you learn how to win, you learn how to lose; how to take direction, how to work hard, how to have self-discipline and focus,” she says. “And those are all skills that you would want in any person that you hire for a job if you were the boss.”
 
Musculoskeletal disparities
Clearly, O’Connor has her priorities squared away. Those priorities include the patients she cares for: people with arthritis of the hip and knee, failed joint replacements, and pelvic tumors. Specifically, she has found that women have a much higher disease burden of knee arthritis compared to men.
 
“I started to take care of women,” O’Connor explains. “And they would come in, and they would have terrible knee arthritis. And they have delayed surgery; they had elected not to proceed with an operation that would, in my opinion, help them. So the question is, why do women have more knee osteoarthritis than men? I think we’re going to find it to be more biologically driven.”
 
The work O’Connor and her colleagues have done should be ready for publication next year, but initial findings indicate a difference in the knee tissue from men and women at the time of knee replacement surgery. Specifically, a difference in vitamin D receptors and vitamin E levels.
 
“We don’t know yet how that’s going to translate into some type of potential treatment or preventative approach, because, that’s the real idea,” O’Connor says. “Can we identify biological differences where we can then take some kind of steps towards changing, so that women don’t experience so much osteoarthritis compared with men? And maybe it would help men, too. We just don’t know yet.”
 


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