Working in rural health for close to 40 years at Richland Hospital, Deb O’Connell ’75 has built a diverse skill set around the specialty she was trained for at UW-Madison — physical therapy.
“In rural health, you have to be adaptable,” says O’Connell, who earned a physical therapy degree in 1975. “You have your specialty, but you have to be expert in a variety of areas, so you can help support the community and help people find answers.”
O’Connell is director of therapy and rehabilitation at the 25-bed hospital, overseeing physical, occupational, speech, and cardiopulmonary therapy, as well as sports medicine. When she arrived there in 1977, she was one of two staff members in rehabilitation. Today, the department has grown to 25 staffers.
In rural health, you have to be adaptable. You have your specialty, but you have to be expert in a variety of areas.
In 2013, she won the Rural Wisconsin Health Cooperative’s Rural Health Ambassador Award, which recognizes health-care employees doing outstanding work. O’Connell says that UW–Madison gave her an excellent foundation in physical therapy and a community that she could lean on as she built her career.
“I always felt I could call professors or other graduates and get answers to questions I had or problems I was trying to solve,” she says.
As a department administrator, she continues to see patients. “The most rewarding thing is the people you work with,” she says. “It’s great to know that you’ve been able to make people’s lives more comfortable and enjoyable.”
Today, she also helps her husband, Jay O’Connell — a 1975 UW–Madison horticulture graduate — operate Lazy Patch Farms, a small fruit-growing operation in Hillpoint, Wisconsin. They grow raspberries, strawberries, apples, and other fruit and market it to local stores and co-ops.
“It’s a good stress reliever, getting out and picking and weeding and pruning,” she says.