SPECIAL FEATURE: A Passion for Her Patients

By on October 2, 2012
Avice O'Connell
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“The secret of joy in work is contained in one word – excellence. To know how to do something well is to enjoy it.” ~ Pearl S. Buck

Buck’s words ring true for many individuals who are driven to excel in their vocation because of the personal fulfillment they receive in turn. One such gifted individual is Dr. Avice O’Connell- expert radiologist, former primary care physician, public educator, community advocate, loving wife and mother, and Director of Women’s Imaging at the Highland Breast Imaging Center. When Rochester Woman Magazine approached Dr. O’Connell for an interview in tandem with this month’s theme, she eagerly obliged.

Indisputably pleasant and marked with a spirited sense of humor, Dr. O’Connell is easy to converse with—it is also evident that O’Connell is veritably passionate about what she does…

Most days, you can find Dr. O’Connell at the Highland Breast Imaging Center at Red Creek in Henrietta. You may also find her at University of Rochester where she takes on the role of Professor of Clinical in the Department of Imaging Sciences. Perhaps you’ve seen her involved in organizations such as the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester, or on YNN news sharing her wisdom to the masses. And if indeed Dr. O’Connell is nowhere in sight at either one of these locations, she is most likely visiting her former stomping grounds in her Ireland homeland.

O’Connell studied medicine at Trinity College, University of Dublin which, as she mentioned, has just celebrated its third centennial. O’Connell and her husband, a surgeon, came to Rochester to begin their specialty training; she completed her internship and residency at Highland and Rochester General. Interestingly, O’Connell entered the medical field as a primary care physician. The O’Connells have since been planted in Rochester soil, calling it “home” for over thirty years.

“We liked the jobs, liked the lifestyle, liked the people; our children were born here and it became harder and harder to move everybody back. We go home once or twice a year. Our children grew up with their summers in Ireland and had their school years here,” says O’Connell.

To better accommodate her husband’s erratic hours as a surgeon, O’Connell turned to radiology with the intent to practice as a radiologist while their children were completing their education, and thereafter to return to internal medicine. However, O’Connell quickly discovered that mammography screening gave her stable scheduling she desired as a working mother, but also the opportunity to interact with patients-one of the assets she is best known for:

“When someone comes in, you see them, you lay hands on them, you talk to them, and you help them with their problem. To me, it was the perfect blend of direct primary care medicine and specialty imaging to find out what was going on. So I could be-what my father wanted- a physician who took care of people, but I also had the stimulation of working with all the new technology.”

O’Connell thrives on patient interaction. As a physician who specializes in women’s imaging, the diagnostic process in a patient’s life is a critical stage-also one that is best handled delicately, with care and total understanding of the patient’s individual needs. To that end, O’Connell is one of the best in her field.

According to Dr. O’Connell, many patients that request a mammography with a preexisting concern are filled with fear-and understandably so. The myths and sensationalism surrounding breast cancer in recent years can all but deplete a woman’s confidence in going in for her mammogram. O’Connell strives to ease her patients’ anxieties when they arrive for this necessary precaution.

“You walk them through it,” says O’Connell. “You help set them up with all the people they need to get to in order to get to the other side so that they can look back and say, ‘Okay. It was a bump in the road, but it wasn’t a dead end. It’s nice to be able to tell people, ‘Look-this is what you’ve got, and this is what you need to do. I’ll help you through it’-that’s the best part.”

O’Connell stresses that clear communication is most effective in the results process. “People will say, ‘Thank you for talking to me,’ and I say ‘That’s my job! You don’t need to thank me. You have a question, I need to answer it.’ That’s the thing with mammography. There’s two tracks. One is that you go in, you have the exam, you go home, and you get a letter. And that’s okay. But if you have a problem and need to come back, we need to talk [about it]. Or if you come in-not because you need a screening-but because you’ve got a lump-you need to be talked to. You need more than one thing-you need all kinds of things! By the time you walk out of the door, you need to know what’s going on-you don’t need to wait a week to know what the results are. We need to meet the person now and say, ‘This is what I think is going on. Here’s what we need to do.’”

One of Dr. O’Connell’s greatest challenges as a radiologist is convincing women of the significance of scheduling an annual screening. She resents the controversy that arose in the previous year which challenged the charge for women to get mammograms in their 40’s. Some have speculated that it might be more suitable to delay the mammogram until a woman has reached her 50’s. O’Connell feels that the longer the mammogram is delayed, the more difficult the cancer would be to treat should it be detected.

“I say, ‘Why not?’ What’s the downside? A little bit of discomfort, a little bit of anxiety-and that’s about it. The upside is if you have an early cancer, we can find it. Would you rather have found your cancer on a mammogram or wait until you can feel it?” says Dr. O’Connell.

O’Connell also mentioned that many women are hesitant to perform self-breast exams because they aren’t certain of what they’re looking for. They speculate that they are doing the exam incorrectly, and therefore refrain from doing it at all. “You’re going for self-awareness more than anything else,” O’Connell says. “I think that people have to say, ‘Look. It’s my body. If I found a mole on my arm, I’d have it checked. If I found a lump in my breast, I’d have it checked.’ And you’d expect to notice a lump-you’ve just got to be aware.”

For Dr. O’Connell, the most rewarding part of her vocation is being able to bring peace and clarity of mind to her patients. She admires their courage, resilience, and the invaluable wisdom that she gains from interacting with them.

As one of six children living in Ireland, it did not seem likely that Dr. O’Connell would attend a university, let alone go to medical school. Her father’s unwavering belief in her was more than enough motivation for her to go on and not only succeed as a physician, helping others become victors in seemingly insurmountable situations, but to become one of the most highly-revered physicians of her time. Much to our delight, Dr. O’Connell says she has no plans to retire any time soon.

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