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Knoxville Business Journal Health Care Hero: Dr. Mary Dillon

Posted on September 6, 2017

Knoxville News-Sentinel
Cortney Roark
September 5, 2017

Dr. Mary Dillon, the Business JournalÕs Health Care Hero in the physician category, Friday, Jul. 28, 2017. She is the medical director at the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center. (Photo: Michael Patrick/News Sentinel)

Dr. Mary Dillon, medical director at the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, treats every patient in the 73-bed center like they’re her favorite patient. 

But she’s not acting or putting on a show. 

“Every patient thinks they’re her favorite patient,” Leslie Irwin, vice president and administrator at the center, said. “And I think in her heart they all are her favorite patient.”

Irwin, who has worked with Dillon for nine years, said she is first and foremost a patient advocate.

“What really stands out about her is her passion and her compassion for the patient and their famlies,” Irwin said. “If she believes in her heart that this inpatient facility is the best place for the patient she will be formidable in advocating that for the patient.”

It’s the same passion that made Dillon second guess her path in medical school. 

A student who wanted to know more

In medical school, Dillon loved neuroanatomy, so she said she assumed she would become a neurosurgeon or neurologist.

But in training, she wasn’t comfortable saying bye to patients when they were discharged. 

“I was really interested in what’s the next step?” she said. “So somebody has a hemiparesis or paraparesis, how are they going to live their life? So in my later years of medical school I was kind of in trouble a lot, because as we would be rounding, and we’d be talking about sending somebody home, I’d be saying, ‘Wait wait, they’re 90, and they live alone. Who’s going to get their groceries? Or how are they going to walk their dog? Or how are they going to get back to the doctor?’ 

“I was always told ‘You write the prescriptions, and let it go.’ ” 

But she couldn’t let it go. 

When a friend did a rotation in physical medicine and rehabilitation, Dillon was intrigued. After she and her husband Michael Dillon read more about it, it was clear she’d found the perfect match.

Dillon attended medical school at the University of Cincinnati. Its residency program was developing while Dillon was a chief resident there, so she was involved in policy and procedure writing, which led to a job offer. 

After serving more than 10 years at the Cincinnati College of Medicine as an assistant professor and residency director for the university’s rehabilitation programs, she wanted to slow down a little as she became a mother. Dillon started at an outpatient practice outside of Cincinnati.

But in early 2003, one letter changed her life. 

“They really care”

In 2003, Dillon received a letter about a job opportunity in Knoxville. She wasn’t looking for a job, but she missed her brain injury and stroke patients. 

After day 1 of the interviewing process, she said to her husband, “We’ve got a little problem here.” 

But it wasn’t a problem at all.


“I said, ‘I’ve been in a lot of hospitals over the years and interacted with a lot of rehab teams, but never have I seen a place where the staff have such a heart for what they do and a love for their patients,’ ” she said. “It’s obvious they’re here for the right reason. If these people offer me a job we need to talk about it.” 

She started at Patricia Neal the same year. 

“I left a part-time job with no nights, no weekends, no holidays and no call and came here with nights, weekends, holidays, and have never regretted it,” Dillon said.

Since Dillon took the position, the Patricia Neal center, located within Covenant Health’s Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, has earned 10 accreditations from the Commission on Accreditation of Rehab Facilities and received six Crystal Awards based on patient satisfaction. 

Dillon is chief of staff-elect for Fort Sanders. She will assume the role in 2018 as the hospital’s first female chief of staff.

Patricia Neal served 731 patients in 2016. It is the largest inpatient rehabilitation hospital in the region so it serves patients from hospitals throughout East Tennessee. Since Fort Sanders is a tertiary hospital, Patricia Neal has access to various subspecialists. 

“We’re involved really from the time of whatever the event was – stroke, traumatic brain injury, spinal cord, new diagnosis of cancer – whatever it is, we get to be intimately involved with the recovery process,” Dillon said. 

Fort Sanders is a comprehensive stroke center, the highest level of stroke accreditation, which means the rehabilitation center is often involved with stroke patients from the first or second day they’re in the hospital. Dillon works to assess each patient and determine where they fit on the rehabilitation continuum of care, which begins with Patricia Neal, the most intensive, highly specialized level of rehabilitation, and continues down to therapists in other hospitals, home health therapists and outpatient clinics.

Once a patient is in the Patricia Neal center, Dillon works to establish the best plan for recovery. She said each patient has an individualized and customized rehab program, even if their CT scan, neurologic exam and residual impairments are identical. 

“The team has to work together to assess what the potential is, what the goals are, how we’re going to achieve that and how we’re going to keep the patient healthy and engaged,” she said. “Most of our patients need some help when they go home. And (we look at) how we’re going to coordinate training and what we’re going to do to reinvest into that person and their family network so they can have the best new normal they can possibly have.”

Dillon said it is a team effort to understand what each patient needs, and every bit of input is important when considering a rehab program.

“We may be having one experience in the gym, but when we get back to our room it may be the person delivering the meal tray that comes out and says, ‘They’re really sad. They’re in their room crying.’ ” Dillon explained. “So everybody’s input is valued in making that plan.” 

A team effort 

Around October, Dillon walks in with an air mattress in case of snow. 

“If we’ve got snow, and we’re keeping staff over, I’m right here with them,” she said. “There’s no job here that I won’t do if I’m capable of doing it.” 

Irwin said it all goes back to the “patient first” mentality.

“If a call light is going off in a room, a patient is asking for help, and Dr. Dillon is there, she will go in,” Irwin said. “She will never say, ‘That’s the nurse’s job.’ She will step in and help and do anything, because always the patients’ needs are going to come first.” 

Jerry Daves, founder of Wood Properties, was at Patricia Neal for months in 2008 and spent several years in outpatient rehabilitation after he had brain surgery to remove a benign brain tumor. During the time following the surgery, he thought, “I’m going to buy me the best dang wheelchair I can get.” He never imagined he’d make it any further.

“Dr. Dillon was the one that pulled it all together and brought me through it from physical recovery, mental recovery and spiritual recovery,” Daves said. “Rehab is tough. Recovery is tough. She’s able to motivate people to get through that. I was able to get in a wheelchair eventually, and then go to a walker, and then a cane.” 

Just like Daves was given a “new normal,” Dillon works each day to provide that to every Patricia Neal patient. 

“Life doesn’t stop when you walk out the door. Sometimes the greatest challenges are being faced there, and particularly in our patients who are often going home very, very different. Around here, life changes for our folks about that quick,” Dillon said as she stood and flipped a light switch off and back on. “If you walked on the floor, you would see several kids who walked across the stage in May and got their high school diploma. College isn’t going to happen like they thought. That quick, their eternity changed. And it wasn’t just their eternity. It was their family’s eternity. So you can’t just stop when they walk out.

“They need to have the rest of their life and have it as good as they possibly can. We’re so blessed here at the center in that we have the ability to stay involved beyond.” 


Dr. Mary Dillon

Age: 56

Education: A.B., Biology, Kenyon College; M.D., University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine; Residency, physical medicine and rehabilitation, University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine

Professional Service: Medical director, Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center; chair, Quality Improvement Committee, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center; chief of staff, elect, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, member, Medical Executive Committee, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center; member, Credentials Committee, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center; member, Physician Advisor Group, Covenant Health; former director of residency, training & assistant professor, Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, University of Cincinnati, College of Medicine; former chief of staff, Drake Center, Cincinnati, Ohio

Community Service: Member, Board of Directors, Fort Sanders Foundation; member, Product Advisor Council, Uniform Data Systems for Medical Rehabilitation; member, Medical Directors Advisory Panel, American Medical Rehabilitation Providers Association; American Heart Association/American Stroke Association, chair, Strategic Health Initiatives Committee; member, Board of Directors Greater Southeast Affiliate; member, Stroke Systems of Care Task Force; Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention Advisory Council, State of Tennessee Department of Health; Leadership Knoxville, Class of 2008

Family: Husband Michael E. Dillon, Jr., daughters Rachel and Sarah



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