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A doctor and pilot’s journey from a NYC housing project to Atlanta by way of Vietnam

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2011 - Spring


Norman Elliott’s journey to Yale began on a combat mission from Vietnam to the Philippines in 1972. A first lieutenant flying rescue for the Air Force during the Vietnam War, Elliott, M.D. ’79, was evacuating a 17-year-old airman who’d attempted suicide by swallowing Drano. “I’d work with the physicians at stabilizing the patients. That was how I came to enjoy medical work,” Elliott said.

The physician on that flight was Phil Steeves, M.D. ’70. Elliott confided to Steeves that he would like to be a doctor, but at 23 and with several years of military service still ahead of him, “I thought I was going to be too old.”

Steeves assured Elliott that there were plenty of older med students at Yale who’d come from other careers. Once back in the States and after five years of active Air Force duty, Elliott enrolled at the School of Medicine in 1975 and continued to fly for the reserves throughout his studies. While his classmates took trains to New York for the weekend, he jokes, he was often flying to Europe.

Today Elliott’s life looks like childhood fantasies come true. The boy who grew up building model airplanes, watching Sky King on television, and reading the Steve Canyon comic strip in the projects in Queens, N.Y., has chased typhoons all over the Pacific and hurricanes through the Gulf of Mexico as a weather reconnaissance pilot. And he is fondly known as “Doc” to the Atlanta Braves, for whom he is now head team physician.

Elliott ended up in Atlanta by chance. The New Yorker always imagined the South as too rural for him, but after a short visit to Atlanta in 1978, Elliott said, “This is where I’m staying.”

Upon graduation from Yale, Elliott went to Atlanta for his residency in internal medicine at Emory. He then became a flight surgeon at the School of Aerospace Medicine at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas in 1983 and joined the Alabama Air National Guard. Following a fellowship in gastroenterology in Birmingham, Elliott returned to practice at Emory, all the while climbing the ranks of the Air National Guard to become Alabama State Air Surgeon and a brigadier general.

In 1992, Elliott was recommended by a colleague for a medical staff position with the Atlanta Braves. Hank Aaron, the Braves’ senior vice president, wanted to address both a shortage of team physicians and a shortage of minorities in front office positions in major league baseball. Elliott’s partner learned about the opening and referred Elliott, who was offered the job by Aaron himself.

Elliott and four other internists split medical duties at 80 home games that require the presence of one internist and one orthopaedic surgeon. At any game, Elliott may take care of players on the visiting and the home team, their families, umpires, and front office staff. He attends to immediate medical needs, makes referrals, writes prescriptions, and conducts physicals at spring training.

Elliott’s favorite part of the job is swapping stories with the pros. Once in the locker room after a game, “I was filling out some papers, and Bobby Cox, Jimy Williams, and Terry Pendleton saw me and said, ‘Hey, Doc, come on over!’ ” Elliot couldn’t believe these guys were inviting him to talk baseball with them. “This was the thing I worshipped. And these were the guys that knew.”

Elliott grew up a Yankees fan, though his father loved the Mets. “I couldn’t be a Mets fan. My father tried to take me to Shea Stadium, and I said, ‘The Yankees aren’t playing there.’ ”

Elliott is happy that his father lived to see him join the Braves. His father never made it to Atlanta for a game, but he waited for his son’s calls afterward telling him “what really happened in the locker room. He loved that.”

Elliott has raised two children in Atlanta—Jason, 25, and Kristen, 21—with his wife of 27 years, Pam, a special education teacher in the public schools. When he’s not at a home game, Elliott sees patients at three hospitals and is a clinical assistant professor at Emory University and Morehouse School of Medicine.

Practicing in three regions as distinct as downtown Atlanta, the city’s suburbs, and the rural foothills, Elliott likes most that he meets people from different backgrounds and helps reduce their suffering, as he observed Steeves doing on the flight to the Philippines nearly 40 years ago. As it turns out, Elliott got his first lesson in gastroenterology that day, and the 17-year-old airman lived.

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