Illustration of Terry O’Connor
Illustration: John Jay Cabuay

Four years ago, in a sweltering slum in Kolkata, India, Terry O’Connor, MD ’04, came face-to-face with the basic principle of his profession: First, do no harm.

In a shack’s dark confines, O’Connor thanked a young Muslim woman for allowing him into her home to treat her sick brother. She wept in response: This is not my home. The family, along with their entire community, had been uprooted from the Sundarbans area of Bangladesh, their rice fields ruined by rising sea levels. 

“I had come all the way across the world to help, but did my flight alone cause more harm than I could possibly repair in a few weeks of volunteering?” wondered O’Connor, an emergency physician at St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center in Ketchum, Idaho, near Sun Valley Resort. 

“If we as a health care community are to be true stewards of global health, we must not only seek new solutions to fight disease in this changing world, but also reconcile with our own contributions to these problems,” O’Connor says.  

An avid mountaineer and athlete, he had already established a nonprofit organization and podcast, both called The Adventure Activist, exploring the nexus between adventure-seeking and altruism. He was incorporating health and climate change into the mix when COVID-19 hit.  

Within weeks, the Sun Valley region had one of the highest per capita concentrations of COVID-19 in the country. “A quarter of our hospital staff was ill or quarantined,” says O’Connor, who is also the director of emergency services for the Blaine County-Sawtooth region. “Every day brought another problem.” 

Recently, thanks to high vaccination rates and abating case rates in Blaine County, O’Connor has been able to refocus. He enrolled in the MPH program at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, studying the impact of environmental degradation on human health and livelihoods.

He also signed on in 2017 as the director of medical education programs for the Climate and Health Program at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, which established the nation’s first climate-focused physician fellowship. Now, O’Connor is helping develop the first diploma in climate medicine, to offer training in the health effects of climate change and the “greening” of health care systems, as well as disaster response, environmental justice, and policy advocacy.

“It’s about health providers putting a voice and a face to the impacts, whether it’s from forced migration, raging wildfires, or extreme heat,” O’Connor says. “It’s not enough to be a clinician anymore. The stakes are too high. We must now effectively communicate what we see and change what we can.”

– Janet Wells for UCSF Magazine

Read the Winter 2022 Issue