Growing up in a family of lawyers and teachers, Joseph O’Connell chose not to follow the family tradition and instead had dreams of becoming a famous artist or shutterbug. He took art and photography classes at a small New England preparatory school and followed with studio art and photography in college.
“I took a photography course with Roger Mertin, who at that time was probably in his 20s; Roger liked my work and he asked if I would trade for some of his. It was just my coursework so I gave it to him,” he says. “I wish I had been astute enough to trade because Roger went on to become a very famous photographer; he even had work hanging in the Museum of Modern Art.”
The Road to Plastic Surgery
Born and raised in West Hartford, Connecticut, Dr. O’Connell ultimately changed course, opting for a career as a plastic surgeon. His decision was influenced by the financial turmoil of the early 1970s. “I began college in 1973. I always enjoyed art and science in high school and I received an unsolicited offer for a college art scholarship. Much to my parents’ chagrin, I turned it down because I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” he says. “Instead, I decided to attend the University of Rochester, which is well known as a science school.”
Today, Dr. O’Connell is the owner and founder of The Aesthetic Center of Connecticut in Westport, a practice dedicated entirely to aesthetic medicine. Following his undergraduate studies, he received a scholarship offer from Cornell Medical School.
Two of his first-year anatomy course instructors—Robert Schwager, MD, and Gerald Imber, MD—were well-regarded New York plastic surgeons. Their passion and encouragement influenced his career path. “They would give lectures to the medical students, teach in the anatomy lab and show us what they did in their private practices,” says Dr. O’Connell. “At that time, the chairman was Dr. Dicran Goulian—who was recently awarded the Presidential award from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons for his lifetime career achievements—and when it came time to do rotations in the third and fourth year, I rotated through plastic surgery.”
After completing medical school and a general surgery residency, Dr. O’Connell saw plastic surgery as a way to integrate his artistic talents with a career in medicine. “If you’re a general surgeon, there aren’t too many different ways to remove a gall bladder or an appendix, but there sure are a whole lot of different techniques you can use during a facelift or other plastic surgery procedures,” he says.
Setting Up Shop
After completing his plastic surgery residency at Cornell Medical Center in 1988, Dr. O’Connell realized that he was not interested in an academic position and, although he fielded several offers to join practices, he elected to set out on his own.
“I saved my pennies, and I started off renting space from a group of internists. When I finished my residency I didn’t even have enough money for the first month’s rent,” he says. “So I moonlighted as a general surgeon in an inner city emergency room for about 21 straight days just to earn enough to open my door.”
Photo by Melani Lust.