J. Thomas “Tom” John

The McKamey family with Dr. Tom John, Stoney Fork, Tenn., circa 1976

I am a bit late in getting my bio in, best done in the earlier stages of pending dotage.

I am originally from Laurinburg, N.C., a small farming and, then, textile community in the eastern part of the state. I attended Laurinburg HS and at one time was junior Rotarian of the month. Then to Davidson College, which, at the time was nowhere on the list of hotbeds of social activity.

Thence to UNC Medical School and Vanderbilt Internal Medicine internship, where with every other night call I learned more than any year my life, worked harder, and had essentially no social life outside of the hospital. Fortunately, a friend suggested 2 women undergraduates that I might be interested in getting to know.

The first was Karen Blaydes who was majoring in Spanish. So we went to Vizcaya, a very fancy Spanish restaurant. That went over as well as taking Bill Dow to Belle Meade, but we came to terms well enough for Karen to remain a lifelong very special friend.

Next was Kathleen Brewer. I was smitten and took a weekend to visit her in White Oak where she was a community worker with a bunch calling themselves the Student Health Coalition. Although I was subsequently released from the duties of relationship with Kathleen, I think I might have met Rick Davidson there, he soon rotated as a medical student on the team where I was the resident and convinced me to get a 3-month rotation to work with SHC.

I was the medical overseer for Adults, Pete Moss handled Pediatrics. I organized a crash course in medical physical diagnostics for nurses, 1st-year medical students and other assorted souls on the medical team. I also reviewed every student exam, of adults, edited every note that was sent to whatever health care provider, if any, they had. Whether or not those efforts had any significant bearing I have my doubts .We did however do a good enough job to earn high praise from Dr. Christie, although he was merciless in his criticism of our filthy white coats.

Over the next two years I spent time in Briceville, Petros, Habersham, White Oak, St Charles, Va., Mud Creek Ky., Sneedville, and Big Spring in Hancock County Tenn., New River, Stoney Fork & Elk Valley.

My most meaningful experiences were in the Anderson County triad of Briceville, New River, and Stoney Fork. It is hard to describe or overemphasize the role Byrd Duncan played in shaping the SHC experience, for me and most others who worked with him. I remember Bob Hartmann saying that three of the most influential people inches life were Amos Christie, Bill Dow and Byrd Duncan. No argument here.

In New River were the New River Boys. Margaret Ecker documented the importance of these guys and their music as expressed by Rick Davidson and me. I still see Tommy Phillips and Eugene McGhee and their fiddle making friend Gene Horner. Their friendships continue to grow.

Time spent in Stoney Fork remains one of the highlights my SHC experience. 45 hard minutes to the nearest commercial entity on a road where coal trucks rule and a road so curvy & with so many switchbacks that “ you spend most of your time looking at your own taillights” The McKamey family were exceptional people & hosts. Odes is gone, but a number of us still keep up with his wife & family.

When I was chief resident at Nashville General Hospital I would leave Tuesday afternoon drive to Stoney Fork , spend the night with Odes & Shelby, and hold clinic at the Stoney Fork clinic Wednesdays. Odes would leave at 2:00 AM to drive a truck, and it was considered quite scandalous that I would be in the house alone with Shelby. They couldn’t care less. Breakfast was a dozen scrambled eggs and as many pork chops. Come on Doc, eat up.

I think I may have practiced the best medicine of my career there. It certainly was the most enjoyable.

I notice that It is hard for any of us to adequately put in words the influence of the SHC on our lives.

That said…..

Friendships… A large majority of my circle of friends stem directly or indirectly from my experiences in the SHC, Not just friends, but important friends who in their respective ways reinforce the importance of staying involved. Golf scores are not part of the dialogue.

Role models…. In addition to some that I have named there are:

JW & Kate Bradley who define walking the walk.

Boomer Winfrey, If you have not seen the Coal Creek Museum and heard the tales of the coal Creek Wars you should

Maureen O’Connell Where do you start?

Marie Cirillo. There before we were. A remarkable lady still raising hell at age 89.

Eula Hall in Mud Creek Kentucky. Mother Jones comes to mind.

Fellow members of the SHC who I will not name because we just don’t do that.

We learned how much we have to learn from folks without much education, John Davis’ words, and that the color of your collar is not an impediment to genuine friendship.

I learned almost as well as Charles Schiff how damned much fun it is and how deeply satisfying it can be to be working on something where there is at least the illusion that you may be making some contribution to the common good.

And then, although # 1 on the list of absolutely verboten subjects, and mindful of seismic waves from Bill Dow’s ashes upon the mentioning thereof, By damn we Did Make a Difference!


Related Places:

Related People:

Odes and Shelby McKamey

Odes and Shelby McKamey were among the most cherished local hosts for members of the SHC when the health fair arrived in their remote mountain community of Stoney Fork, Tennessee. Later, after the Stony Fork Clinic was established, the McKameys… Continued

Bob Hartmann

Profile: [Contributed by Bob Hartmann, February 2017] Rick Davidson has been badgering me for over a year to write a profile. Somehow he enlisted my wife, Mel Welsh, and now she is badgering me! As I read the profiles on… Continued

Joe Little

Profile: [Contributed by Joe Little, February 2016] “As with a growing number of past experiences, my recall is opaque and often self-serving. I don’t exactly remember how I was lured into the first summer of work in 1971 in East… Continued

Related Stories:

Bob Hartmann on the importance of defining health beyond the physical

Bob Hartmann explains how his and many others’ formative experience in rural healthcare and community medicine with the Center for Health Services, Student Health Coalition, and Mountain People’s Health Councils—both as students and young professionals—left a lasting impact on their… Continued

Tom John on the Student Health Coalition and community self-determination

Tom John, M.D. comments on his work with the Student Health Coalition in 1971. He shares that one of the most powerful takeaways from this learning experience was an introduction to and participation in the development of community health systems,… Continued

The role of music in the Student Health Coalition

Here’s the link to a wonderful video clip, edited by Rick Davidson, that describes the connections between young student activists and local musicians in east Tennessee.   Continued

“I will always be grateful for the gifts that the work and the people of those summers gave to me.”

[Story contributed by Angela Carroll Healy, M.D.] Dear All, Seeing the videos and reading the memories of other Coalitioners has made me want to share what working with the Student Health Coalition meant to me. I was a Brooklyn girl,… Continued

One of the best days ever

[Story contributed by Rosalie Hammond, December 2015] During the summer of 1971, I spent a good deal of time on health fair follow-up.  We had always been committed to doing more than just identify clinical problems at the health fairs. … Continued

Tom John in brevis

An video clip of an interview with Dr. Tom John, speaking about his experiences with the Student Health Coalition and the Center for Health Services. Recorded by Margaret Ecker, 2013. More on Community Engagement: Continued

Gathering the Seed Corn: Archiving the Bill Dow Papers

My name is Biff Hollingsworth and I am the Collecting and Outreach Archivist for the Southern Historical Collection at UNC Chapel Hill. My main responsibility at the Southern is to curate new collections and projects, which means that I work on… Continued

Related Resources/Links:

Sue Love Student Health Coalition Meeting Photographs, Southern Historical Collection, UNC Chapel Hill

Sue C. Love participated in the Rural Student Health Coalition in the early 1970s as a medical worker and attended medical school at Vanderbilt University. At the same time, her future husband Cliff Love served as a community worker. Included… Continued

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