, Salem, MA

January 21, 2013

North Shore surgeon shares insights from recent trip to China

By Alan Burke
Staff writer

---- — PEABODY — When he operates on a patient at Sports Medicine North, whether for rotator cuff repair or arthroscopic knee surgery, James O’Holleran brings more than the latest in Western medicine.

It’s true his recent trip to China was an opportunity to teach, to show his Chinese colleagues new American orthopedic techniques. And he performed surgery on two local patients. In Nanjing that meant operating on television, viewed by the hospital’s entire orthopedic department and eventually by the audience of a local station.

“That was a unique opportunity,” he says.

He spoke at sports medicine conferences and offered instruction or demonstrations to nearly 500 doctors.

But it wasn’t a one-way street, says O’Holleran, 42, who lives in Hamilton with his wife and four kids.

“I learned a lot,” he says. “It’s helping me become a better doctor.”

After 10 days he left Asia knowing more about Chinese medicine, about the world’s most populous society and about his own country.

Born in Nebraska, one of nine children, O’Holleran has pursued a career in the growing field of sports medicine, meaning the repair of joint and bone injuries — especially shoulders and knees — seen so often among athletes. He brought an impressive resume to China, including a degree from Yale Medical School and a stint at the Harvard Combined Orthopaedic Residency Program.

His work with athletes included a period in 2004-2005 when he served as the assistant doctor to the New York Giants.

Expertise in football injuries includes his own shoulder surgery “when I was young.” But he downplays his gridiron career saying, “I wasn’t good enough to play football for the (University of Nebraska) Cornhuskers.”

His skill as a surgeon, however, has won him fellowships. In 2007 that sent him on a teaching tour of medical facilities in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan.

When he was invited to visit China at the end of last year, O’Holleran braced himself for something different. Despite dramatic changes, the country continues to be ruled by the Communist Party.

“I expected much more of a closed feeling,” he admits.

The Party continues to dominate, he discovered, but with individuals allowed a remarkable level of freedom and even wealth.

Shanghai, for example, is China’s most Western city, and with its Coca Cola signs and Apple stores it offers an atmosphere not dissimilar to New York, he says. “In the circles where I was traveling, the people were very welcoming because I was there to help train them. ... The Chinese people are wonderful people. Very wonderful.”

Most of his time was spent in hospitals, facilities he found to be clean and modern with sophisticated equipment. On the other hand, he suspects these were the best Chinese hospitals. “I did not spend any time in the rural areas,” he says.

Much of what he saw of China was from the window of a vehicle moving from one city to another, including Shanghai, Beijing, Ningbo, Nanjing and Hangzhou. But, one can learn a lot just looking out the window. He saw a China that thrives, that uses everything — every field, every building. Unfortunately, a byproduct of that dynamism literally obscures the view from the window.

”The air pollution is evident,” says O’Holleran. “Visibility is very low. It’s clearly a problem.”

While O’Holleran was sharing American technical advances, he was also learning from his hosts about their techniques and the way they deal with patients. “It was a cultural exchange,” he says. “There’s always a sense in the academic community that everyone is always learning.”

His Chinese colleagues were attentive, even enthusiastic. “There’s great respect in that country for American medicine.” (English was understood so widely in the regions O’Holleran visited that only occasionally did the American doctor require a translator.)

China’s new prosperity has brought to the fore concerns about medicine for the individual. Likewise, athletics is celebrated and that leads to injuries.

“People value family and they value health,” says O’Holleran. “Doctors there are very good.”

There was limited time to be a tourist. O’Holleran got to see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. It was in Tienanmen Square that he finally had the feeling “China is watching you.”

Of course, he had no problems with the Chinese government. “You do what you’re supposed to do and everything goes well.” But that visit to the Square brought back to him the history in 1989, when a student rebellion was brutally suppressed by the government.

Among the Chinese doctors he met were many who had studied in America, and some of whom longed for the kind of freedom they had experienced here. For O’Holleran, that was probably the most profound lesson of all — an understanding of just how unique, how blessed we are here.

“It makes you appreciate America that much more,” he says. “There’s no place like America. We’re certainly lucky from a medical perspective, and we’re lucky as citizens.”