Dr. John McElligott has dedicated his career to better the health of East Tennesseans.
He’s co-founded multiple health care companies, including Summit Medical Group and Knoxville-based Occupational Health Systems. Occupational Health Systems, provides care for workers injured on the job, employs 20 people and has a second location in Clinton.
He’s helped those dealing with opioid addiction and started a nonprofit to help truckers receive care for medical conditions.
He’s the recipient of the Knox.biz Health Care Heroes lifetime achievement award.
But his path to becoming the esteemed “Dr. John” wasn’t a typical one.
An all-American swimmer with a mean butterfly stroke in Midland, Texas, McElligott wanted to swim in college. However his grades prevented him from getting into colleges that were offering him scholarships.
He ended up going to Odessa Junior College, then Old Dominion University in Virginia.
He joined the US Navy at 18, becoming a combat medic in the Vietnam War. He said he chose the Navy to keep from getting drafted by the Army, as he didn’t like the green uniforms.
He would end up getting transferred to the Marine Corps before being deployed.
“Having been a corpsman and then getting transferred to the Marine Corps was probably the biggest thing,” he said when asked about lessons he learned from his time as a combat medic. “It gave me the ability to think on my feet to handle really difficult situations.”
After the military, McElligott graduated from the Duke University Physician’s Assistant program in 1974 and spent 15 years practicing as a physician assistant in East Tennessee.
Wanting to further his career in medicine, he received his medical certification in 1989 after attending the Spartan Health Sciences University School of Medicine in El Paso, Texas, and completing his three-year residency at the Yale School of Medicine Griffin Hospital. Being in his late 30s, he was the oldest in his class.
“I was number one in my class,” he smiled.
Now, he has his medical license not just in Tennessee, but six other states, from Connecticut to New Mexico.
But “Dr. John” almost hung up his stethoscope a few years ago. Fay Swanson, McElligott’s executive assistant, said he almost retired after leaving another practice.
However, McElligott’s passion for helping others trumped the thought of retirement. So in 1998, he founded Occupational Health Systems.
“He thought about it and he knew that, his passion for people and medicine, he could not just sit on that gift,” Swanson said.
Almost 77, McElligott’s passion for medicine hasn’t faded.
Fighting the opioid crisis
As you pull up to his office at 9135 Middlebrook Pike, you’ll be greeted with a sign in the parking lot that says, “no smoking, no vaping, no eating.” Anyone seen doing so is asked to leave.
Making sure people make healthy choices is important to him. Having never smoked a cigarette in his life, he remembers being the only person in military boot camp able to exercise without huffing and puffing.
Each day he takes a nap and swims at least 50 to 100 lapses in his backyard pool.
He’s passionate about fighting nicotine addiction, but his biggest project is fighting one of the country’s most pressing health issues: the opioid crisis.
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From 1999 to 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates more than 932,000 people died of opioid overdoses. About 136 people in the US die every day from an overdose.
“If you’re taking that stuff, you’ll never know if you’re getting well,” he said. “Pain is something that you learn to manage. You don’t treat it with a pill.”
McElligott estimates he’s gotten 6,000 people off Oxycodone in Tennessee and more in North Carolina. He doesn’t prescribe opioids to his patients.
One of the largest groups affected by tobacco and opioid addictions are truck drivers. That group tends to also face health conditions like obesity, diabetes and heart cardiovascular conditions.
McElligott saw how truckers’ deterioration of health was influenced by a lack of accessible health care and wanted to help. In 2006, he founded St. Christopher’s Trucker Relief Fund, a charity to improve the health of truckers.
The organization has helped more than 3,000 drivers and given over $3.3 million in financial assistance to cover health care bills for truckers.
A one-of-a-kind doctor
Swanson has worked for McElligott for three years and said she feels privileged to work with someone who has an answer to just about any question and share his life experiences.
“It’s almost like being on a roller coaster ride,” she said. “You just never know what’s gonna come out of a conversation that you’re going to have with him because he has done just about everything that you can think of.”
Even though she’s worked with him for a while, Swanson’s still learning more about his life and career. In August, she found out about the John McElligott Veterans Memorial Garden honoring his military service in Durham, North Carolina.
Approaching his 80s, McElligott said he doesn’t have plans to retire any time soon.
“He’s in it because he truly cares about the community of Knoxville, surrounding cities and different areas,” Swanson said. “He really has a passion to help people, and that’s lacking in a lot of places today.”
Despite being a man of many talents with a long, storied career, Swanson said McElligott could be summed up in just three words: best doctor ever.