In 1992, Dr. Eric Eskioglu was a rising young aerospace engineer trained in the science of fluid dynamics — the study of how liquids and gases interact in powerful jet engines that carry airliners through the sky at 600 mph.

In his off time, looking for a change of pace, he’d volunteer at a children’s hospital. The more time he spent there, the more he marveled at the work of doctors and their ability to craft a unique treatment plan (“like your fingerprint”) for every ailing child they cared for.

It led to a decision that stunned friends and family alike. He upended his life plans and became a doctor. 

‘Love at first sight’

Suddenly, Eskioglu, then 24, was dissecting frogs among 18-year-old classmates. It began a 15-year journey through medical school, internships, residency and fellowship. And yes, the “rocket scientist” and “brain surgeon” jokes do tend follow him around.

He’s the son of immigrants from Turkey. Eskioglu’s father was a pediatrician and a violinist. His mother is an interior designer.

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Dr. Eric Eskioglu, Novant Health's chief medical officer

A salient moment in Eskioglu’s career path came during a neurosurgery rotation.

“I saw a skull open for the first time. I saw the brain pulsating,” he said. “It was like love at first sight.”

Since joining Novant Health in 2015, Eskioglu, 53, has built a world-class neurosciences program. His vision and leadership ensured the certification of Charlotte’s first advanced comprehensive stroke center at Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center. 

That’s important because stroke is the third-leading cause of death in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties, and the top cause of disability.

To be eligible for advanced certification, stroke centers must meet additional stringent requirements, including advanced imaging capabilities, 24/7 availability of specialized treatments and providing specialists  with the unique education and capability to care for complex stroke patients.

The number of neuroscience providers has expanded from 35 to 82 since Eskioglu (pronounced “ess-key-ogg-lew”) began.

Eskioglu’s skills fit his role of executive vice president and chief medical officer (CMO) – talented neurosurgeon, passionate leader, energetic, friendly, dedicated and engaging.

Eskioglu is one of the few CMOs in the U.S. who continues to perform surgery. He occasionally surprises leaders in the executive suite when he whisks by wearing hospital scrubs.

“I tell them `You need to get used to this because I’m not going to give up being a surgeon,’” he said. “That’s at the core of what I do. That’s how I serve the patients and our team members the best.”

 

Predicting illness before it hits

A top goal for Eskioglu is infusing artificial intelligence as safety and quality of care components. Doctors have an avalanche of data, but often lack the necessary time to digest it. That’s where predictive analytics can help.

“We want to be able to predict patients before they get sick in the hospital, when they come into the hospital,” Eskioglu said. “We want to be able to predict this patient is at risk of getting sick. And how do we prevent that from happening, rather than waiting for them to get sick and then trying to solve it afterward.”

Eskioglu draws on a dramatic moment as a University of Arizona engineering student for his vision for progress in health care. In 1986, he and a large group of students gathered to watch on television as former University of Arizona engineering graduate Dick Scobee commanded the space shuttle Challenger.

The shuttle exploded 73 seconds into flight, killing Scobee and six other crew members, and stunned a national audience that had tuned in to watch live

“I learned that we’re resilient as a country,” Eskioglu said. “A couple of years later we launched another space shuttle. People like Dick Scobee taught us is that courage is in our essence, is in our DNA. That’s what I expect from our physicians at Novant Health. We’re courageous to embrace AI. We’re courageous to move into areas that look scary, but we’re going to accomplish that. I want us to be the best health care system in the entire country.”

 Happily shares his phone number

Eskioglu said he’s proud of the teamwork he sees across Novant Health.

“With Eric, it doesn’t matter who you are,” said Harry Smith, Novant Health senior vice president of acute care services. “He treats everyone with graciousness. He has a really warm personality. People enjoy talking to him.”

Rounding on a patient one afternoon after operating on her earlier in the day, Eskioglu’s  wry sense of humor was on full display as he explained she’d be going home the next day. “You can do what you like. Take a shower. Act like nothing happened … except that you had a brain surgery,” he said with a smile.

Smith, who works closely with Eskioglu, said he’s collaborative and engaging. How much so? If you’re his patient, he’ll give you his cellphone number. That access may threaten Eskioglu’s free time, but he’s diligent about carving out time for his three children’s activities and his wife, Lauren.

“My greatest lifetime achievement is being a father and husband,” Eskioglu said. “But my greatest professional achievement would be setting up the neuroscience center almost from scratch. We’ve built it to a point where a lot of team members as a group are providing a phenomenal experience, a remarkable experience in neuroscience for our patients.”

Your brain and nervous system control everything you do. Here’s a guide to help understand why specialized care is so crucial, whether you’re having a stroke or living with a chronic condition.

PHOTO: Dr. Eric Eskioglu (right) is one of the few chief medical officers in the country who continues to perform surgery.