Dr. John McKellegott has dedicated his career to improving the health of the people of East Tennessee.
He co-founded several healthcare companies, including Summit Medical Group and Knoxville-based Occupational Health Systems. Occupational Health Systems provides care to workers injured on the job, employs 20 people and has a second location in Clinton.
He has helped those dealing with opioid addiction and created a nonprofit organization to help truck drivers receive care for medical conditions.
Received the Knox.biz Lifetime Achievement Award for Healthcare Champions.
But his path to becoming the esteemed “Doctor John” was not exemplary.
McKellegott, an all-American swimmer with a medium butterfly stroke in Midland, Texas, wanted to swim in college. But his grades prevented him from attending colleges that offered him scholarships.
He ended up going to Odessa Junior College, and then Old Dominion University in Virginia.
He joined the US Navy at the age of eighteen, and became a combat medic in the Vietnam War. He said he chose the Navy to protect it from conscription by the Army, because he didn’t like the green uniform.
He would end up passing it on to the Marines before it could be deployed.
When asked about the lessons he learned from his time as a combat medic, he said, “Working in a corps and then passing it on to the Marine Corps was probably the biggest thing.” “It gave me the ability to think on my feet to deal with really difficult situations.”
After his military service, McElligott graduated from Duke University’s Physician Assistant Program in 1974 and spent 15 years practicing as a physician assistant in East Tennessee.
Desiring to pursue a career in medicine, he earned his medical degree in 1989 after attending the Spartan University School of Health Sciences in El Paso, Texas, and completing his three-year residency at Yale University School of Medicine at Griffin Hospital. Being in his late thirties, he was the oldest in his class.
He smiled, “You were number one in my class.”
Now, he has his medical license not only in Tennessee, but in six other states, from Connecticut to New Mexico.
But Dr. John nearly turned off the stethoscope a few years ago. Faye Swanson, McElligott’s executive assistant, said he nearly retired after leaving another practice.
However, McElligott’s passion for helping others outweighed the idea of retirement. So in 1998, he founded Occupational Health Systems.
“He thought about it and knew his passion for people and medicine couldn’t get enough of this gift,” Swanson said.
Around 77 years old, McElligott’s passion for medicine has not faded away.
Fighting the opioid crisis
When you arrive at his office at 9135 Middlebrook Pike, you will be greeted by a sign in the parking lot that says “No Smoking, No E-Smoking, No Eating.” Anyone who sees him doing this is asked to leave.
Making sure people make healthy choices is important to him. Since he’s never smoked a cigarette in his life, he remembers that he’s the only person at military training camp who is able to exercise without puffing.
He takes naps every day and swims at least 50 to 100 laps in the pool in his backyard.
He is passionate about fighting nicotine addiction, but his biggest project is to fight one of the country’s most pressing health issues: the opioid crisis.
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From 1999 to 2021, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates More than 932,000 people have died from opioid overdoses. About 136 people die in the United States every day from an overdose.
“If you take these things, you will never know if you are getting better or not,” he said. “Pain is something you learn to manage. Don’t treat it with pills.”
McCleggot estimates he got 6,000 people from oxycodone in Tennessee and more in North Carolina. He does not prescribe opioids to his patients.
Truck drivers are one of the largest groups affected by tobacco and opioid addiction. This group also tends to experience health conditions such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
McElligott saw how truck drivers’ declining health was affected by the lack of accessible health care and wanted help. In 2006, he founded the St. Christopher’s Truck Driver Relief Fund, a charity to improve the health of truck drivers.
The organization has assisted more than 3,000 drivers and provided more than $3.3 million in financial assistance to cover truck drivers’ health care bills.
Swanson has worked with McElligott for three years and said she feels privileged to work with someone who has the answer to almost any question and to share their life experiences.
“It’s like riding a roller coaster,” she said. “You just never know what will result from a conversation you’re going to have with him because he’s done everything you can think of.”
Even though she worked with him for a while, Swanson is still learning more about his life and career. In August, I found out that John McElligott Veterans Memorial Garden honors his military service in Durham, North Carolina.
With his 80s approaching, McKellegott said he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“He’s in it because he really cares about the Knoxville community and the surrounding cities and different areas,” Swanson said. “He really has a passion for helping people, and that doesn’t exist in a lot of places today.”
Despite being a man of many talents with a long career, Swanson said that McEllegot can be summed up in just three words: the best doctor ever.