Dr. Francis O’Donnell and his daughter, Dr. Mary O’Donnell, have dedicated their careers as physicians to serving our soldiers. The story of their service to their country and to our servicemen and women is a reminder of what makes our military great – the people.
“I was not interested in the military,” Francis O’Donnell recalls. “They basically had to drag me in.” It was the late sixties, during the Vietnam Era, and the draft was a reality for many young men and their families. Francis’ grasp of the military was so limited that when the Selective Service Agency offered him a commission in the army, he had to call the agency office to find out what a commission was. It was the last year of his residency in internal medicine at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City and the “doctor draft” had just been reinstated.
During his residency at St. Vincent’s Francis had become interested in exploring public health. Learning of this, the army promptly sent him to complete a residency at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“It was a sweet deal,” Francis recalls. “I essentially proceeded immediately to Johns Hopkins and they [the army] paid me as a captain.”
The continued educational opportunities that the Army afforded O’Donnell translated into his continued service, what O’Donnell refers to as “payback time.” After completing this residency, O’Donnell worked for a year in preventive medicine at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, before being transferred with his wife and then two children to serve as Chief of Preventive Medicine in an army hospital in Germany where their third child was born. Subsequent postings took his growing family to Seoul, South Korea, where Mary was born, San Antonio, Texas and included his year-long deployment to Saudi Arabia during the Persian Gulf War and ultimately back to Walter Reed. The year 2002 marked thirty years of service and his mandatory retirement as a colonel, but Francis continues to work as a contractor for the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center as it strives to create a uniform health care approach for all branches of the military.
At some point during those thirty years, Francis’ obligation to the Army became a commitment born out of an appreciation for the opportunities the Army made available to him and a respect for members of the military. “I came to understand how [the army] operated. I discovered that these are good people. These are people I respected,” he recalls. “I was always impressed by the dedication that people in uniform showed to their mission.” This is an observation devoid of sentiment. Francis O’Donnell is a very pragmatic, rational person who values education and hard work.
In addition to the people he worked with, the army allowed O’Donnell to continue to grow in his career. “I liked the opportunities and was interested in what was going on,” he admits. “I’m grateful I got to change jobs every few years. Why not be professionally stimulated and progress?”
He contrasts his military career to a career as a civilian in private practice and admits that he had no interest in managing the fiscal and economic aspects of a private practice and doubts that he could have continued to learn and grow as he has as an army physician.
His commitment to the army has inspired more commitment. In 2010, his daughter Mary graduated from the Army’s medical school, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, and is now four years into her internship and residency in general surgery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. With still two years to go, she is already considering furthering her education by pursuing a fellowship to study minimally invasive surgery.
Like father, like daughter.
“I knew I wanted to be a doctor very young,” Mary recalls. “I was about ten years old. My dad would get the New England Journal of Medicine and I would look at the pictures constantly and read about them. I didn’t think anything of it; I was just interested in the pictures. I guess that’s maybe unusual that I was looking at all the medical books my father had in the house.”
Mary laughs when I refer to her family’s continued pursuit of education as an addiction. “And hard work,” she adds. “We are definitely blessed with intelligence in my family, but from an early age we learned that without hard work and continuous learning, it can be easily wasted.”
Even though she grew up in the military, Mary found her own path to the Army. When it was time to apply for medical schools, she cast her net fairly wide, applying all over, including her father’s medical school in New York City. “There was no pressure to join the military or to become a doctor. I became interested in medicine first, then interviewed at different medical schools, and USU was my favorite. I just fell in love with the sense of community, what you’re doing for people, the population, and how small the group of physicians that you’re going to be working with is. Taking care of wounded warriors was a huge part of it,” she adds.
“Working at Walter Reed has made it all the more worth it,” she points out. “It can be heartbreaking some of the stuff that you see, but getting [soldiers] to the point where they’re back with their families and they’re able to get to rehab is incredibly fulfilling. Helping the families deal with what’s going on is an unforeseen part of a surgeon’s job. Usually you think of a surgeon as – they meet you on the day of surgery and then it’s ‘goodbye see you in follow up’ and you never see them again. There’s a lot more patient interaction that goes on as a part of my job, and I am happy it is a part of my job. I’m incredibly grateful. It’s this aspect that I don’t think a lot of people outside the military get.
“You take care of the wounded warriors and they say thank you ma’am,” she marvels. “And I think, ‘Don’t say thank you ma’am. Thank you for everything that you’ve done.’ I would do this for free,” she points out. “They don’t even have to pay me to do this. It’s incredible. This is the reason why I became a doctor, to see my influence on helping people get back to their families, to be able to be with their families.”
Another difference between Army and civilian physicians is how they are paid. Both Francis and Mary express relief at not letting a lack of money stand in the way of providing a patient the treatment they need. “We completely avoid the patient as a transaction for money,” she points out. “Since it’s government, it’s all paid for, you don’t even have to worry about, ‘Is this person even going to be able to pay for this?’ or ‘They really need this procedure but they can’t afford it, what do I do now? How do I take care of this person?’ You never really have to think about that stuff, which was something I didn’t really know before. It’s nice from a medical standpoint. I’m just trying to help a person.”
This is a family of keen and restless intellects. Mary’s oldest brother, Frank, graduated from Harvard and now works as the vice president of engineering at PubMatic. Her sister Norah (the cover story for this magazine’s June/July issue) is a correspondent for CBS and her brother Matthew tutors high school students. Mary’s mother, Norah, Sr., at the age of 67, has returned to school to study microbiology.
Both father and daughter have a deep appreciation of the medical advances that have come out of the army, from the Army’s experiments with the smallpox vaccine during the Revolutionary War to breakthroughs in preventing infection and conducting amputations during the Civil War to the U.S. Army’s development of a vaccine for the meningococcal virus, and its continued research into vaccines for HIV and malaria. “The Army has led the way in terms of research,” Francis points out. “Being exposed to that tradition was inspiring.”
Our current war in Afghanistan has demanded more medical advances from the army’s medical personnel. “The wound care aspect of it has been a huge development,” Mary adds. “Prosthetic development has just exploded from [the outcome of the war in Afghanistan] in terms of incorporating your own nerves into the movement of these things, connecting your brain to a new limb. On the base you see people walking around with their new legs and half the time you wouldn’t notice that they have prosthetic limbs on because they’re so high-tech.”
“TBI [traumatic brain injury] rehab has become standard as well as a huge center for excellence to detect minor traumatic brain injury, which we were not aware of before,” she continues. “That has made people, like the National Football League, realize you can get multiple concussions and have minor traumatic brain injury, which does actually influence you. Through MRI technology they realized that there is damage going on that we were not aware of before.”
The army has proven a great fit for both father and daughter, who frequently use the term “mental stimulation” in describing their work and hobbies. In addition to his work as a contractor, Francis also serves as editor of the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center’s journal, The Medical Surveillance Monthly Report. He fell into this position because he could not resist participating in the editorial conversations of people working at desks near his. This led to some copy-editing and when the editor of the journal retired he asked Francis if he wanted the job. A natural storyteller, conversationalist, and crossword puzzle enthusiast, Francis’ love of words and the craft of writing is readily apparent. Consistent with his boundless curiosity, he and his wife are also studying Spanish. Mary is their inspiration for this endeavor. Having done volunteer work in Mexico as a high school student, she majored in Spanish at Georgetown University and is a fluent speaker.
Francis and Mary will frequently talk for hours about their cases and still talk about the New England Journal of Medicine, which is now an app on Mary’s phone. In describing her father’s influence on her life, Mary says, “My dad is the wisest and yet most humble person I know. He never pressured me in any direction towards a career path, as is evidenced by my elder siblings having chosen different paths. However, his genuine desire for knowledge and pleasure in gaining it was obvious to me at an early age. He told me he used to read the encyclopedia growing up. For fun,“ she emphasizes.
Growing up on Staten Island in New York City, Francis says. “I was always keenly aware of being Irish.” His four children have the maiden names of their grandmothers as middle names as a way to maintain a connection to their heritage.
Still, the O’Donnells don’t wear their heritage on their sleeves. In fact, Francis is wary of the potential for divisiveness that can arise out of allegiance to one nationality. His father was born in Scotland to parents who emigrated from Ireland to find work, ultimately moving to the states. Their experience of having to struggle as immigrants to find work instilled in them an intolerance for discrimination, particularly racial discrimination.
The O’Donnells are only two of the hundreds of thousands of unsung heroes who tend to the sick, and work to ensure our safety. Their story underscores what the army does well – protect U.S. citizens and take care of those who have volunteered to put themselves in harm’s way to protect our country. That commitment to its service members has led to advances in our entire nation’s health care. It’s more than the motto Army Strong, it’s also Army Cares.