By Heidi Campbell-Robinson, freelance writer
Early on the morning of June 16, Dr. G.R. Davis, McCalla Professor of Biology, lay on a hospital bed. His chest had been shaved and cold electrodes were in place.
He was being prepared for heart surgery.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Davis says. “In fact, I had a sense of assurance because the doctor was one in whom I put great trust.”
Dr. Michael O’Quinn, who happened to be a 1999 Wofford College graduate and one of Davis’ former students, was his cardiologist.
“He was one of mine,” Davis says.
O’Quinn performed cryoablation, a procedure meant to restore a normal heart rhythm by disabling heart cells that create an irregular heartbeat.
Twenty-four years ago, O’Quinn studied physiology with Davis. He recalls Davis’ ability to use colorful analogies to illustrate scientific principles.
“His classes were inspirational in terms of figuring out how to think about homeostasis and dynamics of physiology,” O’Quinn says. “I still remember an analogy he used of needing to make a series of corrections to maintain equilibrium as being similar to a drunk driver trying to keep his car straight on a road.”
Davis is known as an enthusiastic and knowledgeable teacher. He remembered O’Quinn as a go-getter when it came to research.
“He participated in a semester research project of his own design under my supervision,” Davis says.
O’Quinn knew that he wanted to be a heart surgeon from the age of 13.
“My grandmother passed away from a heart attack. I was in seventh grade,” O’Quinn says. “I wanted to understand what happened.”
Tall and soft-spoken with quick blue eyes and a ready smile, O’Quinn is a native of Spartanburg. His father, Thomas O’Quinn, graduated from Wofford in 1973. His sister, Elizabeth, graduated from the college in 2006.
“We all had a positive college experience and an outstanding education,” O’Quinn says. “In my medical school class at MUSC (Medical University of South Carolina), there were four or five of us from Wofford, and we were among the best prepared.”
The influence of Wofford faculty continues to shape how he approaches his work.
“My base philosophy and the manner in which I have made decisions are based on the critical thinking skills that I gained in Dr. Charles Kay’s philosophy class,” says O’Quinn, who also credits Dr. George Shiflet, professor emeritus and former chair of biology, as a mentor and a major influence on his education and career.
Now a distinguished clinical cardiac electrophysiologist, O’Quinn joined Cardiology Consultants in the summer of 2020. He seeks to make wise decisions for his patients and to find a sense of balance in his busy life. He and his wife, Nikole, have three children ages 10, 5 and 1.
“I like to spend my time with my patients,” O’Quinn says. “I love research, but it can be isolating.”
Following his Wofford graduation and before medical school, O’Quinn was hired as a research specialist by the Gazes Cardiac Research Institute at MUSC. He then went on to complete his medical degree and doctor of philosophy at MUSC. His doctor of philosophy dissertation focused on gap junctions, which are channels that physically connect adjacent cells and are essential for the spread of electrical activity between cells in the heart. O’Quinn has published 18 research papers and was the lead author of a 2019 paper titled “Approach to Management of Premature Ventricular Contractions.”
Practicing as a physician, O’Quinn can apply his knowledge and skills for the benefit of his patients, such as Davis.
Davis jokingly reflected on the unexpected encounter with O’Quinn.
“You never know when your life might be in the hands of a former student,” he says. “I’m just glad that I had not given him cause to take vengeance on me!”
Davis and O’Quinn considered the life stages in which they found themselves at their initial meeting at Wofford and, again, this year. Davis was 40 years old and was happily settling into his position at Wofford when O’Quinn took his class. O’Quinn is now in his early 40s and, after years of training, joined a private practice.
“You are now in a position to take care of me,” Davis says to Quinn.
O’Quinn responded, “It’s rewarding — for me, it is really great. I think that a lot of us have that aspiration to come back home and help out our neighbors and our community.”
Davis summarizes his reunion with O’Quinn by saying, “You could say that, in a fashion, students who come to Wofford trust us, their professors, with their brains. In return, I trusted one of my students with my heart.”