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UC Davis Medical Center

UC Davis Medical Center

Michael O’Connor: Excellence in Compassion

Spotlight on Staff

Michael O'Connor
Michael O’Connor

Michael O’Connor’s definition of hospice embraces the overall sense of hospitality, of being open and kind.

“It’s everything that goes with making someone comfortable and helping them to have a meaningful quality to this part of their lives,” he says.

O’Connor, a chaplain with UC Davis Health System’s Hospice Program, has received the Excellence in Compassion award for his contributions at this year’s Employee Excellence Awards and Diversity Celebration.

Born in Ireland, O’Connor emigrated to the United States in 1965 and worked for the Diocese of Sacramento before joining the first full-year class of UC Davis Health System’s Clinical Pastoral Education program in 1989. The career change shifted his focus to concentrate more on a person’s end-of-life journey. He worked part-time as a chaplain, or spiritual counselor, and volunteer coordinator before becoming a full-time chaplain.

The power of listening

“We work together to evaluate their needs, whether it’s healing or reconnecting with family, friends, faith, nature or to understand their central purpose and what gives them satisfaction." 
—  Michael O'Connor

O’Connor believes in the power of listening and reminiscing. Though he lightly likens his mission to an old motel advertising campaign — “We’re somewhere between where you were and where you’re going” — the relationship with his patients remains profound. Medications and palliative treatments are useful in controlling pain and discomfort, but disease shouldn’t be the primary focus of hospice.

“We work together to evaluate their needs,” he says, “whether it’s healing or reconnecting with family, friends, faith, nature or to understand their central purpose and what gives them satisfaction. What are their deeper values, beyond ‘I don’t want to be in pain?’”

The field is not without its challenges, which include navigating increasing regulations and combating people’s preconceived beliefs about what hospice is. Another challenge is remaining compassionate but neutral, especially when counseling patients who desire to get back in touch with their faith. (In his role, O’Connor practices non-denominational spiritual counseling.) It’s critical, he says, for the hospice team — and himself — to keep perspective on who they are and the purpose they serve.

Understanding cultural, ethnic diversity

O’Connor visits about five patients per day, traveling primarily within Sacramento County, El Dorado Hills, Roseville and Davis.

Given the Sacramento region’s cultural and ethnic diversity, being sensitive to cultural awareness is particularly critical.

“I’ve found that one has to live the culture to truly understand its underlying elements,” O’Connor says. “The basic thing is: Ask, don’t assume. By listening to where they’re coming from, I can get a different perspective on their need for healing.

“I’m of the Catholic background,” he adds by way of example, “but if I go into a Catholic family, I’d better not assume they understand it the same way I do, or that I understand it the way they do.”

“Michael has an extraordinary ability to provide spiritual care to a very diverse population, regardless of their belief system, culture, age, language or economic status,” says Stacey Magee, program manager in Home Health and Hospice.

Relating to people

"By listening to where they’re coming from, I can get a different perspective on their need for healing." 
— Michael O'Connor

O’Connor, who raised five children and has family scattered about the region, abides by a philosophy espoused by Mother Teresa, who said that simply being with someone and letting them know that their presence was worthwhile was an important way to relate to people.

Also essential in relating to people – in hospice and in life – is humor. “We do have a lot of fun and laughter with patients,” he adds. “Going into the home with gaunt, sad faces—who wants that? I’d throw them out!”

First posted October 2011