Tom O’Hara, ’13, has wanted to become a doctor for as long as he can remember.

“I was born with really severe allergies,” he says. “I had asthma and wore glasses at a young age, then ended up with some football injuries in high school. So I got to know doctors pretty well.”

It was his interest in health care that led O’Hara to his job with Rubicon, a substance abuse treatment center in Richmond’s Highland Park neighborhood. Rubicon is one of several community organizations that work in partnership with Build It, a civic engagement program of the Bonner Center for Civic Engagement that matches UR students with local volunteer opportunities. Because of his need-based aid eligibility, O’Hara is compensated for his work at Rubicon through the Community Partners Federal Work Study program.

As a member of the Build It Action Group, O’Hara serves as a liaison between Rubicon and other student volunteers. He also works there every Friday, spending hours with Rubicon clients, facilitating group sessions, completing paperwork or collecting urine specimens.

O’Hara says that some of his friends and family were wary of his choice.

“When you tell people you’re working at a drug rehab center, they think it’s like a jail,” he says, “that it’s full of scary people and they all want out. But it’s not like that at all. Most of them are there because they want to be. They want to get better.”

With a major in biochemistry and molecular biology, O’Hara says that he finds the physiological effects of withdrawal especially interesting. But he’s getting more than just vital signs from Rubicon’s clients.

“Addict is such a negative term,” he says. “Once you spend time with these clients, you stop seeing them as addicts. You start seeing them as people who came from somewhere and have things they want to do in life.”

That understanding, O’Hara says, is something that Rubicon’s clients don’t always encounter out in the world.

“Even in health care, there are some who look down on people like this and say, ‘Oh, they did it to themselves,’” he says. “But if someone has lung cancer from years of smoking, we understand that we still need to treat the lung cancer. This is no different.”

O’Hara will begin applying to medical schools next year. He plans to become a general surgeon, specializing in trauma care.

“I like to solve problems, think fast and jump right in to fix things,” he says.

A Philadelphia native, O’Hara says his desired specialty may lead him back to an urban setting, where trauma cases are abundant. He hopes to use what he’s learned at Rubicon to be a better doctor.

“I’ll know that if substance abuse is at the root of a patient’s pain, I need to make sure they are getting help,” he says. “You can’t just send someone home to the same problems.”