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Community Turns Out for Dr. Terry O’Connor’s Last Call
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Terry O’Connor’s brother Chris addresses a full house at River Run Lodge.
   
Saturday, June 22, 2024
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

Dr. Terry O’Connor was a combination of Ironman, Captain America and Mother Teresa, Gavin McClurg told a few hundred people who crowded into the River Run Lodge to celebrate O’Connor’s life Thursday afternoon.

“You may want to add miracle worker to that list, as well,” added Father Ron Wekerle, of Our Lady os the Snows Catholic Church. “I asked one woman standing on the bridge just before the ceremony how she knew Terry and she said, ‘He saved my life.’ ”

O’Connor lost his life in an avalanche while skiing in the Lost River Range of Idaho near Mackay on May 10. An emergency room doctor at St. Luke’s Wood River, he seemed to have crammed several lifetimes into his 48 years, working on mountain search and rescue teams, taking part in research expeditions at Mount Everest, served as medical director for Blaine County Emergency Medical Servies, responding to ambulance calls with local fire departments and leading Blaine County’s response to the COVID pandemic, leading some to call him “The Dr. Fauci of Blaine County.”

 
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First responders stand at attention as Terry O’Connor’s family steps off the fire truck
 

In his “spare time,” he summited Mount Everest, biked the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos to raise money to remove unexploded ordnance, ran three ultra-marathons to raise money for earthquake victims in Nepal and educated health professionals on the impact of climate change on public health. And that doesn’t begin to cover all he did.

O’Connor’s brother Chris and his partner, his mother Lilea and others close to him boarded a Ketchum fire truck piloted by Sr. Lieutenant Lara McLean at St. Luke’s Wood River hospital where doctors had come from other hospitals to substitute so that local medical personnel could attend the service. The fire truck led a procession of other fire trucks and emergency vehicles across the bridge over the Big Wood River, turning onto Serenade Lane.

There, the truck wrapped in black bunting pulled over while the others proceeded to the parking lot. The truck rolled to a stop just shy of the bridge leading to River Run Lodge where first responders dressed in navy blue, O’Conner’s medical colleagues, government officials and others lined the bridge.

Family members disembarked from the fire engine and followed a bagpiper across the bridge, which had been covered with prayer flags that flapped in the breeze as white cottonseed danced through the air.

 
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A bagpiper leads the family through a line on the River Run Bridge.
 

Ketchum firefighter Rebecca Rusch draped cream-colored khatas around the necks of those entering the lodge--the khatas a Tibetan symbol of compassion, something O’Connor tried to embody as he provided medical care to children in Nepal and patients in the emergency room at St. Luke’s.

Inside, prayer flags were draped across the podium, with a lilac bush and aspen trees serving as the backdrop. Additional prayer flags were draped across the massive fireplace, the chairs in which guests sat and the balcony where still more crowded watching the ceremony from the second floor.

“This is an awesome crowd to celebrate a truly awesome life in Terry O’Connor,” said McClurg, as he looked across the crowd during the 2.5-hour tribute.

Guests chuckled as they watched video clips of O’Connor hooting as he enjoyed the awesomeness of skiing knee-deep powder in Japan. They watched slides of O’Connor with his family. And they laughed at a picture of O’Connor and a fellow backcountry skier hitching a ride on Teton Pass in the back of a linen truck, O’Connor’s green Black Crow skis in hand.

 
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Rebecca Rusch drapes a khata around a celebrant's neck.
 

“The mountains were Terry’s lifeline,” said McClurg. “He was awestruck by them, he was humbled by them.”

O’Connor grew up in the Bay area and studied philosophy at the University of Colorado before embarking on his medical career.

McClurg said he met O’Connor during a yurt trip in the Pioneer Mountains: “He was someone who was genuinely interested in who you were and what you did; he was the most productive person I have ever met….He squeezed every single drop out of life.”

One speaker praised TOC, as he was known, for his great smile, huge heart, brilliance, intense curiosity and drive to master whatever he was interested in. He didn’t care about money; rather, he cared about spending the proper amount of time with each patient. He organized everything, even cereal boxes.

 
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Ketchum firefighter Miles Canfield adjusts his kafta as his wife Tori Canfield, also a firefighter, looks on.
 

“He wasn’t a dabbler—he was all in,” added Chris O’Connor.

One speaker told of a note he’d received from O’Connor just before his death, sharing his enthusiasm for spring skiing.

“Remember: You must be present to win,” O’Connor wrote.

A leader of a contemplative practice in Jackson, Wyo., noted that people often ask: How is it that something like this can happen? What they don’t ask is: How is it people don’t believe something like this can’t happen, he said.

“It’s okay to grieve,” he added, quoting the Dalai Lama. “Just don’t grieve too much.”

O’Connor’s mother Lilia showed a photograph of a pinkish lavender mariposa lily that O’Connor had taken a picture of as the sun sparkled on the horizon. She told the audience that Terry had been quiet, observant, always willing to learn  as a child.

“Terry’s message to me is to ‘Keep moving, Mom.’ Yes, I will miss my loving son Terry, but I will move on and I ask that you do the same,” she said, exhorting the crowd to follow O’Connor’s example of loving and assisting one another.

McLean said O’Connor was the essence of good leadership during the pandemic, telling firefighters what they needed to do to stay well, while still serving others.

After many heartfelt tributes, a firefighter’s bell was rung three times for three times, repeating a tradition that goes back 200 years and recalls when firefighters ran bells at the beginning and end of a shift.

The bell was followed by a “Last Call” from a dispatcher, acknowledging that Terry O’Connor had made his last call.

One man passed around bumper stickers with “WWTD  What Would Terry Do?” printed on a topographic map.

“Terry lived his life with purpose and compassion,” he said. “He did not waste time. He was either doing something epic and memorable or working on a project.”

Ketchum Fire Chief Bill McLaughlin agreed: “He made a huge difference around the world. He made a huge difference here.”

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