It only takes moments in talking with Dr. Catherine O’Connor to be drawn to her smile, ease and authenticity. A self-professed “glass half-full” mentality provides an apt description of the medical director of the SIH Breast Center in Carbondale where her passion for her patients’ well-being reigns supreme.
“I’m their cheerleader. Things are so much more positive these days. Breast cancer is not a death sentence,” said Dr. O’Connor.
Dr. O’Connor’s career spanned the northeast, southeast and southwest prior to coming to Carbondale.
“I grew up in New England, so I know snow. I went to medical school in Florida, so I know heat and humidity,” laughs Dr. O’Connor.
Over the last year, she spent time in a temporary leadership position at the SIH Breast Center to determine if it was a good fit. It was indeed. She draws parallels between the region and her hometown.
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“I was raised in a rural Connecticut town with less than 10,000 people. We had two stoplights and one not quite grocery store. We didn't get a real grocery store until after I graduated from high school. So, I'm a rural girl,” said Dr. O’Connor.
With an initial eye towards family practice and a sports medicine fellowship (she’s also a certified athletic trainer, more on that later), she fell in love with surgery during residency. She maintained practices with a mix of general and breast surgery and transitioned to a breast-only focus in 2017.
“I love the aspects of surgery where we get to fix things. I’m not somebody who can just say ‘see me back here in three months’ … I love the long-term aspect of following patients over time that we do in breast care,” she said.
She has a collaborative communication style, which she calls a very important part of women’s health.
“It doesn’t matter if it’s something that’s benign, or not cancer, or if it’s cancer, which can be very devastating. Patients have to participate. They need to be educated. There are a lot of different options and that takes time and a lot of talking and making sure people are comfortable with their choices,” said Dr. O’Connor.
In May, Dr. O’Connor and her husband, Matthew, closed on a home in Murphysboro with five acres. They’re thoroughly enjoying the Southern Illinois lifestyle along with their cats, Gidgit, a mouthy Bengal, and Molly, the shelter kitty/house panther.
“We are but the staff in their world, continuously trying to meet their exacting service standards,” quipped Dr. O’Connor.
In a bit of serendipity, she discovered one of her childhood best friends has lived in Carbondale for more than 20 years. Together, they’ve embarked on hiking trips which have taken Dr. O’Connor to Giant City State Park and Little Grand Canyon thus far.
When it comes to hobbies, the doctor also enjoys stamp collecting. It’s something she fell into while traveling with the U.S. Women’s Ice Hockey team.
“I was also a certified athletic trainer and team physician for over 25 years. I worked at the college level, Division Three, men's football and men's ice hockey. Then I got hooked up with the U.S. women's ice hockey program and traveled with them internationally for 10 years,” said Dr. O’Connor.
In 2006, a worker at the Torino Olympic Village post office in northwest Italy set the stage for the doctor’s future stamp obsession.
“Whenever we went overseas for a tournament, everybody knew I’d want to find the post office. I’d look for cool postcards and stamps to put on them for family and friends. But it wasn't a stamp collection. When I went to the village’s post office, they only had pre-printed black and white strips for mail sent via (international) air. But they did have souvenir stamps and sheets of stamps unique to the Olympics and the village. So, I got those thinking they were kind of a cool souvenir,” she recalls.
Dr. O’Connor is now part of an international group of stamp collectors with friends in the US, Canada, Switzerland and Russia. Plus, it should come as no surprise that she’s an avid ice hockey fan and claims the Las Vegas Golden Knights as her team from her time working in the city.
Today, Dr. O’Connor looks forward to exploring more of the treasures of Southern Illinois. She counts the SIH Breast Center and overall cancer program among them.
“This is a gem. People don't realize how good it is here,” said Dr. O’Connor.