Washington People: Regis O’Keefe

Former basketball team captain takes a collaborative approach as head of Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

Jie Shen, PhD, (left) instructor in orthopaedic surgery, discusses research into musculoskeletal cancer with Regis J. O’Keefe, MD, PhD, head of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. (Credit: Robert Boston)

Some basketball players are almost impossible to stop and seem to score a basket every time they get the ball. Others focus less on their own shots and more on making their teammates better. Regis J. O’Keefe, MD, PhD, is in the second category.

A guard for four years on Yale University’s basketball team, O’Keefe was the Bulldogs’ captain as a senior.

“My approach to competition is that it’s collaborative,” he said. “It’s by motivating those around us that we are able to win. That’s the difference with someone like LeBron James. He wants everyone on the team to do well, and as talented as he is, it’s not about him.”

O’Keefe is an orthopaedic surgeon who specializes in musculoskeletal oncology. He heads the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a position he has held since October. And as the new chairman, his goal is to make those around him better.

“I want to enable our faculty members to realize their personal and professional goals so they can develop programs that will be models for others around the country,” he said. “I want to build the strongest team possible. As a chair, it’s not really about me.”

O’Keefe succeeded Richard H. Gelberman, MD, the Fred C. Reynolds Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, as department head.

“A very attractive aspect of this place is the standard that Richard established and that we will continue to have, which is his commitment to excellence,” O’Keefe said. “Excellence in clinical care, research and in education are values I firmly believe in, and it’s exciting to be in an environment with so many talented people working in a setting where it’s possible to achieve your maximum potential.”

Fundamentals

A future career as the department head at a medical school likely never occurred to O’Keefe when he was a boy growing up in Pittsburgh. Neither of his parents had gone to college. His father passed away when he was only 5 years old, and his mother supported Regis and his older brothers by selling dresses in Kaufmann’s department store.

Most of what he knew about medicine came from what he saw on television shows such as “Medical Center,” “Ben Casey” and “Marcus Welby, MD.” But when he was 9 or 10, he had a more personal encounter with medicine.

“My grandmother had an illness, and she spent the last few months of her life in our home with my mother caring for her,” he explained. “That illness had a big impact on me. Seeing her in that situation and feeling powerless to help shaped some of my thinking. I also noticed how much of an impact care providers could have on individuals and families.”

Medicine wasn’t exactly a slam dunk from there. While at Yale, he majored in philosophy and religious studies. He managed to take required science courses, but he didn’t decide on medical school until his junior year of college.

O’Keefe opted for medical school at Harvard. As with his choice to go to medical school, his decision to specialize in orthopaedic surgery took a while. In fact, he didn’t even do a rotation in the specialty until September of his final year in medical school.

“As an athlete, I thought it might be a little bit too stereotypical for me to go into the field,” he said. “But after my late introduction, I realized it offered a wide range of opportunities to care for a variety of patients of all ages with both acute and chronic conditions, and the specialty would give me an opportunity to have a remarkable impact on people’s lives.”

As his interest grew in orthopaedic surgery, O’Keefe also came to realize that he wanted to be involved in bench science, too. He spent weekends and summers working with a cardiac physiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and discovered that he enjoyed research.

“I didn’t really know yet what it was going to be like to be a physician,” he said. “But I was concerned that I might not give anything back to the field, that I might not even publish a paper. That realization was my initial impetus to work in a lab.”

In the years since, he has gone from wondering whether he’d ever write a paper to being an author on more than 250 peer-reviewed articles.

Through internships, residencies and fellowships, he continued his scientific training, moving on to the University of Rochester, where he earned a doctorate in biochemistry and biophysics.

He also learned that if one wants to be a clinician and a scientist, it’s vital to be exceptionally good at the former.

“One of my mentors at Rochester, who is still a good friend, was a clinician-scientist named Randy Rosier,” O’Keefe said. “I learned from Randy that if you’re going to be a clinician-scientist, you need to be an outstanding clinician because the responsibility we take on in providing care for patients is enormous. So since my early training, I’ve always focused on being a skilled clinician.”

Something else he learned working with Rosier would result in O’Keefe zeroing in on a specialty. Rosier was a musculoskeletal oncologist, and collaborating with him was O’Keefe’s introduction to cancer management and treatment. In learning about muscle and bone cancers, he saw a clear way to help people with life-threatening diseases.

From Rochester to the ‘River City’

O’Keefe stayed in Rochester, where he advanced from doctoral student and orthopaedic surgery instructor to head of the Department of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation. He also directed the school’s Center for Musculoskeletal Research.

Last summer, he agreed to move to Washington University.

“This is an extraordinary place, and the collaborative atmosphere here is exceptional,” he said. “Although I knew the School of Medicine had a great reputation, until I got here I didn’t realize the size and scope of the research enterprise. I think the breadth and depth of the research, the talent of the investigators and their enthusiasm for what they are doing is unmatched.”

O’Keefe plans to develop a research program at Shriners Hospitals for Children-St. Louis. He also is overseeing an effort to gather data from patients regarding impressions of their physical, social and mental well-being. The plan is to gather information from each of 120,000 patients treated annually. He also wants to expand clinical space in new facilities on the drawing board in west and south St. Louis County, all while he’s still learning his way around town.

From left, O’Keefe’s children Daniel, Abby, Kayli and Patrick
From left, O’Keefe’s children Daniel, Abby, Kayli and Patrick

No longer a basketball player himself, he coached his children, Patrick (24), Daniel (23), Kaylin (20) and Abby (17) when they played in youth leagues. Soon, Abby will follow his footsteps to an Ivy League basketball team. She has committed to play for Brown University after she finishes high school.

He may no longer practice his jump shot, but O’Keefe rises early every morning to exercise. He estimates it’s been five to 10 years since he last missed a day on the exercise bike, stairmaster or elliptical trainer.

He and his wife, Carol, live in the Central West End with Abby and the family’s two dogs, so O’Keefe gets plenty of walking in, too.

He acknowledges missing friends he made during more than 20 years in Rochester but is grateful to have missed upstate New York’s winter. Perhaps he’ll pine for it in July. Or maybe not.

“I’ll tell you,” he said, then laughed. “Hot is hot, but cold hurts. When it’s hot, you’re uncomfortable, but cold is painful.”

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