O’Connor Still Impacting Lives as Air Force Physical Therapist

Friday, February 14, 2020
Angie Lucas, Erin O'Connor, Erik Hayes

Former residence life staff member Erin O’Connor (middle) received the 2019 Jess Lucas Alumni Leadership Award. Presenting the honor were Vice President for Student Affairs Erik Hayes and Lucas’ daughter Angie Lucas.

Erin O’Connor has received the Jess Lucas Alumni Leadership Award for the care she has shown that has impacted the lives of former Rose-Hulman students and current members of the U.S. Air Force.

The Office of Student Affairs annually recognizes a former Rose-Hulman residence life staff member for career achievements, and service to the community and alma mater.

O’Connor, a 2007 biomedical engineering graduate, is a major in the Air Force, serving as a physical therapist for the 22 Special Tactics Squadron, based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord near Tacoma, Wash. She directs clinic operations in support of 220 operators and support staff assigned to the squadron. O’Connor also provides orthopedic and sports physical therapy care, human performance optimization, injury prevention programs and efficient running training.

She knows firsthand the importance of empathic and professional health care after suffering a broken leg early in a six-month deployment in the Middle East.

“I now know how crummy major surgery feels and how daunting the recovery is,” O’Connor told Rose-Hulman’s current residence life staff and leaders during the alumni award dinner. “(The incident) was a turning point in my physical therapist career, showing my humanity and being able to relate to my patients in ways that couldn’t have happened otherwise.”

She continued, “I would perform my rehab in the clinic right next to my patients. Then I would turn around, get in uniform and take care of other patients. I share my story with some of my surgical patients as a means for motivation and to instill hope that they can get back to high-level fitness, if we work together to rehab their injury.”

O’Connor has been an instructor in pain-free running clinics at military bases in Illinois and Alabama. The former Rose-Hulman swimming and cross country student-athlete was a member of the Air Force’s National Triathlon Team from 2008-2012 and U.S. Armed Forces Triathlon Team, which competed in the 2011 Military World Games.

The Louisville native began her military career after being commissioned as a graduating Air Force cadet in Rose-Hulman’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). She was a bioenvironmental engineer at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida. She cross trained into physical therapy after earning a doctorate in physical therapy at an U.S. Army-Baylor University graduate school program at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. O’Connor also completed the Tactical Sports and Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapy Fellowship program at the Air Force Academy in Colorado.

“Erin has always been conscientious in caring about the wellbeing of others. That’s what made her an outstanding Resident Assistant and Sophomore Advisor, two significant front-line areas within our residence life staff,” says Erik Hayes, vice president for student affairs and dean of students. “Erin has now turned her attention toward providing excellent care to those proudly serving our country in the military.”

O’Connor is a fellow of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Manual Physical Therapists and a board-certified orthopedic specialist. She earned the outstanding research award in 2015 from the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, the Biomedical Clinician Category 1 Company Grade Officer of the Year Award in 2015, and several meritorious military service medals.

She was the Young Alumni Representative to Rose-Hulman’s Board of Trustees from 2016-18.
Lucas served as Rose-Hulman's vice president for student affairs and dean of students from 1975 until retiring in 2000. His daughter, Angie, assisted in presenting this year’s award on behalf of the Lucas family.