Pearl O'Rourke DMS ’73:
Asking Hard Questions
In September of 1995, Pearl O’Rourke arrived in Washington, D.C. to spend a sabbatical year as a Robert Wood Johnson Health Policy Fellow, working in the office of Senator Ted Kennedy. It would prove to be a turning point in her career, taking her from her work as director of the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) at the Children’s Hospital and Medical Center in Seattle to a job as deputy director of science policy at NIH, and then to her current position at Partners HealthCare System in Boston, where she oversees the ethical, legal, and regulatory issues of human subjects research and stem cell research.
“Doing intensive care, I think everybody ultimately spends a lot of time and energy with ethical issues,” says O’Rourke. “Intensive care medicine forces one to address – on virtually a daily basis – questions regarding appropriate levels of care that not only can be, but should be provided.” For O’Rourke, these questions were heightened by her clinical research in extreme methods of cardiopulmonary support and pediatric resuscitation, and she was one of the early participants in extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) research.
Now, her work revolves around medical ethics questions on a broad scale. “Today, one major focus is the change in both the conduct and the oversight of research as seen through the lens of genetics,” says O’Rourke. “Our research oversight requirements, as codified in federal law, were written in the 1970s. It was a time when research was done by a single investigator working on a single question and intervention. Now, research is not only multi-institutional, it is global – much of it is done with teams of researchers.
“The research questions are broad, and the research requires massive data, DNA, and tissue collections. This presents new and magnifies the old challenges in protecting those individuals who participate in this research—for example, identifying individual and community risks and benefits of genetic research, figuring out the validity and utility of new genetic research results, and as in all research, protecting privacy, confidentiality, and respectfulness.”
O’Rourke’s passionate interest in research ethics and public policy has also spurred her involvement in the national non-profit organization Public Responsibility in Medicine and Research (PRIM&R), where she has been a board member since 2002 and previously served as board chair. Of her professional path, O’Rourke says, “My job is an interesting merging of my medical training and clinical career with my hands-on experience with the legislative process and with federal agencies that conduct, support, or oversee research.”
Entrée to medicine
Although O’Rourke was in one of the last two-year classes at DMS, and went on to do her clinical training and finish her MD at the University of Minnesota, it was at DMS that she had one her most memorable introductions to clinical medicine. Accompanying neurology professor Dr. Alex Reeves to the intensive care unit, she watched as nurses suctioned the tracheotomy of an adolescent boy who had suffered a severe closed head injury. “The first time you see that, it’s just horrible,” she says. “I had never fainted in my life, but the blood just drained out of me. I slowly moved out of the room and sat in the hallway, and I was thinking, ‘I’m weak. What is wrong with me?’ “Dr. Reeves followed me out and sat with me and calmly talked about how incredibly difficult it was to see this happen to a person. He let me know that it’s perfectly normal to feel bad. I’ve thought back on this invaluable lesson many times in my own teaching,” says O’Rourke, who is also an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School.
Reconnecting with DMS
O’Rourke’s move back to Boston in 2001, where earlier she had begun her career in pediatrics and pediatric critical care, provided her with an opportunity to reconnect with DMS, and she joined the DMS alumni council. In October, 2009, she became chair.
She sees a key role of the alumni council as providing avenues for the broader alumni body to support the school, stay abreast of important developments, and engage with students to create a sense of continuity across class years. She acknowledges that for many alumni, distance can seem a barrier to involvement, but points to the web-based specialty network and the white coat notes as projects that can transcend geography.
“It’s those one by one connections, even if they’re small, that are invigorating for alumni and have the bigger impact on students,” says O’Rourke.
Pearl O’Rourke invites alumni, students, and faculty to contact her with ideas, suggestions, or feedback for the alumni council by emailing her at email@example.com, or writing her care of DMS Alumni Relations, 1 Medical Center Drive, Lebanon, NH 03756.