forget me not

Tuesday 6 October 1998

Cancer doctor battled disease with compassion
Legacy includes Wellwood Centre

Sharon Boase
The Spectator

While family and friends mourn the passing of Dr. Greg O'Connell, they are taking some comfort from the fact that his memory will never die.

The determined, forward-thinking and brilliantly witty man's legacy includes the Wellwood Cancer Resource Centre at the Henderson Hospital. In keeping with O'Connell's personal and professional philosophy, Wellwood offers information, counselling, support -- and hope -- to cancer patients and their families.

Some might see O'Connell's death due to cancer as a grim sort of ironic twist in the life of a man committed to cancer treatment and research. He was head of gynecologic oncology at the Hamilton Regional Cancer Centre. He was also director of gynecologic oncology in the obstetrics and gynecology department at McMaster University, as well as an assistant professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at McMaster's faculty of health sciences.

Wellwood's president Deborah Weston said O'Connell's innate sensitivity toward his patients was made broader and deeper by his diagnosis and subsequent struggle.

"It offered him an insight into the patient's side of the journey," she said yesterday. "His ability to empathize with that coming firsthand was unfortunate but he really did turn it into a positive for the community."

O'Connell died Sunday at his home in Dundas at the age of 50. He had been diagnosed in 1989 with olfactory neuroblastoma, a form of cancer so rare that even he had difficulty getting information on it. He is survived by his wife, Maureen O'Connor, and their two children, Caitlin, 17, and Eamonn, 16.

O'Connell met his wife when they were both students at Loyola College in Montreal. They found they had much in common, including a passion for the music of Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and the poetry of Dylan Thomas. He loved music so much that he almost chose a career in music. But his plan to become a doctor -- dating back to the first grade -- won out in the end.

They both dreamed of working toward social justice overseas. In 1974, they worked for CUSO in Papua, New Guinea, and then in Nicaragua in 1980. They settled in Hamilton when the children arrived.

O'Connell's former colleague Dr. Joan Murphy said he was remarkably persistent. When others would give up, he would keep swimming upstream. He was also a very intelligent and creative man -- and always funny.

"He could see the humour in anything, absolutely anything," she said yesterday in an interview from Toronto Hospital where she is head of gynecologic oncology. "He could always . . . at no one else's expense . . . be able to get everyone in giggles. But he was infuriating in his stubbornness, I mean he really quite was. But that's OK. I mean, he wasn't a saint or anything, but close."

Murphy said she wouldn't have been at all surprised if Wellwood had been created even without O'Connell's cancer diagnosis.

"Greg could see the whole patient whereas the mere mortals among us would lose the whole picture and get seduced by specifics. He would always remind us of what x, y or z would mean to any given patient. It was almost predictable that something like Wellwood came out of his experience just because of the person he was before he ever got sick. And Maureen was the perfect foil for it all, because she's also very much into the big picture as opposed to dealing with small parts of a human being."

O'Connor said her husband would have been shocked at the idea of a newspaper article being written about him after death. And yet his confidence astounded her. He simply believed at his core that he was a capable -- and lovable -- person. But she never knew him to toot his own horn, nor feel sorry for himself.

"It was incredible the losses this man experienced from the time he was diagnosed," she said yesterday. "And I never saw self-pity. His palliative care physician said that Greg brought the term 'forbearance' to mind. That was very true of him."