Karen Mulloy, D.O.

Ohio physician and faculty member finds fulfillment in occupational health, teaching

Karen B. Mulloy, D.O., began medical school at the age of 36. As a nontraditional student, she had experience in the health care field working as an emergency medical technician and paramedic, but never imagined a life as a physician. 

“When I was younger I never thought about becoming a doctor. When I grew up, women were supposed to be teachers, nurses, secretaries, housewives and mothers, so it was never on my radar,” she said. 

The West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM) Class of 1986 graduate worked as a cardiopulmonary technician alongside Donald Rasmussen, M.D., a pulmonary physician in Beckley, W.Va., who was known for his research on pneumoconiosis in coal workers and advocacy for black lung benefits for coal miners. She later realized it was her work with Rasmussen that influenced her interest in occupational and environmental health. 

“He was a great mentor and a great inspiration to me. He would sit and talk to miners and listen to their stories and was interested in all the details they had to share about their lives,” Mulloy remembered. 

Mulloy had some trepidation about attending medical school in her late 30s, but her goal was to finish school before she turned 40.

“I was concerned about being in school with a bunch of 20-year-olds. Once I got back into the groove of studying, it was fine. I already had a number of years’ worth of experience talking to patients and I knew how to relate to them, but I needed to learn the basic science,” she said. 

After graduating from WVSOM, Mulloy completed a family medicine residency at Marshall University School of Medicine and a Master of Science degree in community health. She went on to complete a residency in occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Kentucky.

Occupational and environmental medicine focuses on the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of work-related and environmental injury, illness and disability and the promotion of health for workers, their families and communities. 

“It’s important to know what people do for a living, because it may affect their health,” Mulloy said. “It’s another part of people’s lives for physicians to become aware of and fit into the whole equation. It makes a difference.”

She said knowledge of occupational and environmental health can allow physicians to discover exposures that may impact not just one person, but a group of people or a whole community. 

“It is great to be able to discover possible or actual exposures and then be able to intervene at the work site to stop those exposures and help many more workers than the one patient you see. We’ve been in situations where one person comes in ill but it causes illness among many. Protecting large numbers of members of a community has been the most exciting part of this specialty,” Mulloy said. 

In November 2023, Mulloy received the Alice Hamilton Award from the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association. The award recognizes the lifelong contributions of individuals whose careers have improved workers’ lives. 

She also received the F. Marion Bishop Educator of the Year Award from the Association for Prevention Teaching and Research in 2023. The award recognizes an association member who has made significant and outstanding contributions to the instruction of students that advances the fields of public health and prevention. 

“These awards are humbling, and it makes you feel good when other people have seen that the work you have done has made a difference in communities, peoples’ lives and students,” she said. 

Mulloy is an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, where she has taught since 2013. She is partially retired from clinical work but has worked in academic centers since finishing her residency. She previously taught at Marshall University, the University of New Mexico and the Colorado School of Public Health. 

While she may not be providing care to patients or teaching in West Virginia, she acknowledges that WVSOM gave her the education for a career she never expected. 

“My whole family looks back on the wonderful years we spent in Lewisburg. We loved our lives there. I had a great small class where you got to know everybody well, and I made great friendships at the school. The professors I learned from set the tone for my entire career,” she said. “That allowed me to be open to new ideas and ways of looking at things. My approach to different patients was broadened because of my education at WVSOM.”

By way of giving back, Mulloy has financially contributed to the Libby Kokott, D.O., Memorial Grant. It was established by Kokott’s four children to honor a WVSOM Class of 1993 graduate who became a physician at the age of 50. Kokott helped hundreds of patients in her 20 years as an internist, and her hope was that others could do the same. 

Mulloy said she wanted to ensure that nontraditional students like herself will have a chance to fulfill their dream to study medicine. 

“I think it’s important for those of us who went before to help others. Medicine needs nontraditional students. We bring different perspectives to our work with patients. It needs people of other interests, careers or life circumstances who can bring a depth to the practice of medicine,” she said.