James Matthew Elliott is assistant professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois.
What inspired you to become a healthcare provider?
I have had a bit of a nontraditional path into health care, as I started my professional life in baseball, playing in the San Diego Padres system and then working in the front office with the Colorado Rockies. I was dead-keen to one day become a general manager but it wasn’t meant to be. I became good friends with the team’s lead physical therapist, Tom Probst. Observing him run the medical side of the fence at the major league level inspired me to no end. I left the game in 1996 to head back to school to become a physical therapist.
Why did you focus on pain management?
I became extremely interested in whiplash as a physical therapist in Colorado, dealing mostly with people who had had car accidents and transitioned to chronic pain. I was noticing that these individuals very rarely, if ever, had any structural injury on their MRIs that would point to the problem, but all seemed to have unhealthy looking neck muscles. Clearly that was simply a qualitative clinical observation, and so I started knocking on the door of every radiologist in Colorado. One in particular agreed that there seemed to be clear evidence of fatty changes in those muscles. That confirmation provided the foundation for me to pursue a PhD. The vast majority of literature on whiplash was (and still is) produced by the Australians, at the University of Queensland (UQ). Accordingly, I applied and was accepted to pursue a PhD at UQ working with Professor Gwen Jull and Professor Graham Galloway, a renowned MR physicist. We were able to develop a very simple MRI measure to quantify muscle fat. I later embarked on a 3-year postdoc with Professor Michele Sterling, a world-renowned expert in whiplash associated disorders. That experience was by far the most influential 3 years of my professional life.
Who were your mentors?
UQ Professors Galloway, Jull, and Sterling have helped to shape my research program and, frankly, helped me to become a better person and leader. Bob Gebhard also provided me with phenomenal life-mentoring: he took me in when I was 21 and gave me an opportunity to work in major league baseball. He was and is a tough, but incredibly generous man.
If you weren't a healthcare provider, what would you be?
General manager of a championship major league baseball club.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I like to drive the bus and, for the most part, have a good idea of where the bus is going. In purer terms, my most marked characteristic is having a healthy amount of passion. In fact, I think I may need medication for it all.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’ve been lucky to have achieved quite a bit in my life. I’ve played professional baseball, earned All-America honors at the collegiate level, hit home runs (struck out a lot as well), travelled the globe, lived overseas, and been recognized for my work. Though, despite these wonderful achievements, all of them pale in comparison to marrying Helen nee Stevens Elliott from Inverness, Scotland, and having three 3 sweet kids, Emma, Zoë, and Oscar.
What is your favorite language?
How about intelligent, concise, honest, lucid language—not language that is filled with mumbo jumbo.
If you had to choose one book, one film, and one piece of music to take into space for an undetermined amount of time, what would they be?
Book: Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation, a damn good read and reminder of the sacrifices these men and women made for all of us. Movie: Australian comedy The Castle, reminding us that a home is “more than just a structure of bricks and mortar, but a home built with love and shared memories.” Music: That’s easy—the essential Johnny Cash with a gentle nod towards playing Get Rhythm over and over again.
What would you like your legacy to be?
That I made a difference in changing the delivery of medical/rehabilitative care for patients with spinal injuries, and this helped millions of people return to a normal life on a global scale.
What is your motto?
One of my favs is “Life is not a Jerry Springer show.” He/she who yells loudest does NOT win. He/she who can engage in civil discourse stands tall.