Give Him a Hand

Dr. Stephen O’Connell



Dr. Stephen O’Connell set his career goals early. In fact, he had his life mapped out soon after graduating — from kindergarten.

"In my first-grade yearbook, I said that I wanted to go to Notre Dame, study medicine, and be a surgeon," he says. He succeeded on all counts.

Growing up near Washington, D.C., he idolized his family’s physician and wanted to follow in his footsteps. And in a family of Fighting Irish fans, O’Connell’s choice of university was a given: "I think I was a junior before my dad told me there were other colleges," he says.

O’Connell graduated from Notre Dame, magna cum laude, in 1978 and earned his M.D. in 1982 from University of Maryland in Baltimore. He came to the Coachella Valley in 1988 and is a partner and director of hand and upper extremity surgery at Desert Orthopedic Center. He is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon with a certificate in hand surgery, and director of occupational therapy and hand therapy at Eisenhower Medical Center.

For O’Connell, choosing orthopedic medicine involved timing and bit of Irish luck."When I was a medical student, I went over to [Johns] Hopkins to do my orthopedic rotation, and it was, I guess, fortuitous that a couple of people were sick and they needed help. As a junior medical student, I got to do a lot of things — more than maybe I would normally get to do — and I really had a great, fun time," he explains.

"I tend to be someone who really likes mechanical things. In fact, I paid my way through medical school building swimming pools. I always liked construction; and, really, orthopedic surgeons are just construction guys with really nice equipment."

O’Connell began his career in joint replacement, but found it monotonous performing the same operation repeatedly. He chose to pursue a hand and shoulder specialty, which appeals to his precise, energetic personality.

"Hand surgery is very meticulous, and I tend to be a very focused, meticulous person. We do a wide variety of surgeries — tendons, nerves, muscles, bones. So we cover a gamut. It’s never boring."

O’Connell’s Rancho Mirage practice allows him to be part sleuth, part master builder. Coming up with a diagnosis is like solving a mystery, which is the toughest part of the job, he says. The mechanics of the hand are complicated; and once he identifies a problem, he tailors a surgery to fix it.

"Intellectually, it’s very stimulating trying to figure out the problems of the hand. And technically it’s very demanding, because there’s not a lot of room for error. If you’re 3 or 4 millimeters off in the knee, it’s probably not going to be a big deal. Half a millimeter in the hand could be a disaster."

On a daily basis, O’Connell sees about 50 patients, with problems ranging from arthritis to fractures and nerve damage. He also puts in 14-hour days in the operating room, where his repertoire includes nearly 100 different hand surgeries. This includes a revolutionary knuckle-replacement operation using pyrocarbon implants that is so new the FDA approves it only for humanitarian purposes.

O’Connell prides himself on his commitment to his practice, so he strives to stay on top of developments in his field, frequently lecturing at orthopedic meetings. His top priority, however, is family: his wife, two children, and two stepchildren. In his down time, he’s a keen golfer, often playing a few holes in the evening with his wife, Jean.

"It’s my greatest accomplishment to be a committed father and a committed surgeon, no matter what happens," he says.

— Joan Page McKenna

Edit Module
Palm Springs Life
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Related Articles

Jane Lynch, The von Trapps, Igudesman & Joo Lead Picks for McCallum's 2015-16 Season

Mitch Gershenfeld’s successful track record in booking shows audiences love led him to establish “Mitch’s Picks” to showcase artists the public may not be familiar with appearing at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert.

Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey

Sentimental Journey is ostensibly about the heart wanting what it wants when it wants it. And it’s about the yearning, second-guessing reminiscences that at some point down the road may accompany the choices we make.

Open Call Gives Greater Palm Springs Area Talent a Chance to Shine

Kaitlyn Farley knew music was her calling from a young age, but opportunities like the annual Open Call at the McCallum Theatre took that passion to another level.

alt-J’s Gus Unger-Hamilton Leads a Beautiful Coachella Life

alt-J’s immediate future is playing Coachella for the second time in three years, something the 2012 Mercury Music Prize winners are very much anticipating.

Tycho Set to Ride the Chillwave at Coachella 2015

If you told ambient chillwave artist Tycho that it seems like he’s in a constant dream state with a course permanently set for the outer reaches of the cosmos, he would very much appreciate the sentiment.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Promotions + Contests

2014/15 Best of the Best

2014/15 Best of the Best

Palm Springs Life’s annual Best of the Best. Readers tell us who their choice is for the “Best of the Best” of the Coachella Valley in over 40 categories.
GuestLife Magical Monterey Bay Experience

GuestLife Magical Monterey Bay Experience

Pets on Parade 2015 Photo Contest

Pets on Parade 2015 Photo Contest

Enter your “Cutest Pet” photo in the Pets on Parade 2015 Photo Contest. Online users will be able to like the Cutest Pet photos from six (6) categories.
Cartoon Caption Contest

Cartoon Caption Contest

Each month, we provide a vintage 1950’s cartoon illustrated by Alice Rovinsky. You are invited to submit a caption or vote for your favorite caption.