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For USU Professor Life in the Bubble is like Life in the Field

Walt Disney World's ESPN Wide World of Sports

By Sharon Holland

For retired Army Col. (Dr.) Fran O’Connor, working with the NBA recently was a lot like participating in the Uniformed Services University’s medical field practicum, Operation Bushmaster.  

A portrait photo of Dr. Fran O'Connor
Dr. Fran O'Connor, professor and former chair of USU's
Military and Emergency Medicine department, and 
medical director of CHAMP, spent several weeks this
summer overseeing COVID-19 testing for the NBA.
(USU Photo)
O’Connor, professor and former chair of USU’s Department of Military and Emergency Medicine, and medical director of the university’s Consortium for Health and Military Performance, performed a three-week rotation inside the NBA’s “Bubble” – the coronavirus-driven solution for final games and playoffs of the 2019-2020 professional basketball season.  The Bubble, located at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World, housed all of the players, coaches, trainers, team medical support, media, and basketball courts in one location, keeping the public – and the virus – at bay.  

The NBA suspended its season in March after one of its players tested positive for COVID-19.  In early June, they voted to continue the rest of the season in relative isolation at Disney World, under very strict conditions, to protect players from COVID-19.  Twenty-two NBA teams that were within six games of a playoff spot when the season was suspended were invited to participate.  

O’Connor, who is a national leader and expert in sports medicine, was requested to support the enormous undertaking by the NBA’s chief medical officer.  He secured approval for the time off, and went on his way to Orlando where he was met by an army of NBA personnel ready to put his talents to work.

O’Connor was part of a team dedicated to the management of daily COVID-19 testing for the Bubble.  In addition to the NBA personnel, testing included media, vendors, drivers – anyone working inside the Bubble.  He was part of a medical team of more than 30 people, including team physicians, contract medical support, paramedics and others.  O’Connor was dual-hatted, like several other physicians, balancing COVID management duties with sideline coverage during games.  

Dr. Fran O'Connor (right) stands with NBA player Josh Reaves (left).
Josh Reaves (left), a member of the Dallas
Mavericks, was among the NBA players
in the Bubble. During Reaves'
adolescent years, Dr. Fran O'Connor (right),
who managed COVID-19 testing in the
Bubble, served as Reaves' youth
basketball coach. (Photo Courtesy of Dr.
Fran O'Connor)
Every day was like Groundhog Day, according to O’Connor.  Bubble residents would wake up and perform self-temperature and pulse oximetry checks, in addition to completing a symptom app.  In addition, each Bubble resident was required to have a daily COVID test. O’Connor’s principal role was to assist the team in acting on daily test results, to include activating contact tracing or facilitating advanced or reflex testing to clear individuals from quarantine or differentiate potential false positives or false negatives.  For everyone, but especially the teams and players, it could be anxiety-provoking.  

O’Connor likened the experience to USU’s fourth-year medical field training exercise.  “It’s like going to Bushmaster.  There is a busy team working around the clock.  What I did was very comparable to being a Bushmaster platoon leader,” he said.  “Managing issues, staff, problem-solving.  Most of the skills I utilized were communication, broad medical knowledge, leadership, and the ability to be part of a team.”  

His team would hold daily meetings to ensure everyone was on the same page and working in sync.  The daily communication was open, and there never was a “stupid” question.  O’Connor said that was critical when working with both the players and coaches.  He emphasized that communication among the NBA medical team members, comparable to the Bushmaster team, was a core element of the NBA’s recent success.  

“Being a good listener, being collaborative, being a team player – it’s all important. The messaging is the tricky part.  You can be the smartest doctor in the world, but if you can’t communicate…   Just like at Bushmaster, the teams that do well are the teams that communicate.” 

A group of men in masks
Dr. Fran O'Connor (center, right) was dual-hatted, like several other physicians, balancing COVID management duties with sideline coverage during
games in the NBA Bubble. (Photo Courtesy of Dr. Fran O'Connor)

(Disclaimer:  The appearance of the ESPN/Disney image does not imply endorsement by USU, DoD or the Federal Government.)