Matthew Eckert, MD, joins the UNC Department of Surgery as an Assistant Professor in the Division of General, Acute Care, and Trauma Surgery. He sat down to discuss what inspired him to become not only a doctor but a trauma surgeon and his motivation for getting up each day, saving lives on and off the battlefield, and why he jumps out of airplanes.
Dr. Eckert received his Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts degrees from Saint Louis University in 2000 and a medical degree from Loyola University in 2004. He completed his general surgery residency at Madigan Army Medical Center in 2010, followed by critical care and trauma/acute care surgery fellowships at Vanderbilt University in 2012. This year, he completed a Master of Health Professions Education (MHPE) program through the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.
Dr. Eckert joins our Department of Surgery in the Division of General and Acute Care. He was most recently the Trauma Medical Director and Chief of General Surgery Clinics at Madigan Army Medical Center, an active duty Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army and Assistant Professor of Surgery at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. Dr. Eckert served numerous combat deployments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa with the United States Special Operations Command.
Dr. Eckert’s research interests include the management of hemorrhagic shock and the coagulopathy of trauma. He has numerous publications to his credit on this subject, many in top-tier journals. He also serves as a peer reviewer on several publications. He was an associate investigator on a significant number of grants investigating the treatment of acute hemorrhage and coagulopathy, including NIH funded research into the use of high-frequency ultrasound to treat hemorrhage.
What inspired you to become a doctor?
My Mom was a trauma nurse, and she raised my brother and me on her own. I got used to seeing what the shiftwork life of a trauma nurse was like. My grandfather was originally a general surgeon, who landed on Omaha Beach during D-Day. He’d had enough after World War II and retrained in Pediatrics. Like many folks, I got to college and had an inkling of interest in one field and explored from there. I spent a lot of time volunteering in hospitals, and that sealed the deal for me.
How did you find your path into becoming a surgeon in the military?
An ROTC scholarship funded my undergraduate schooling. I started as a Cadet, going to school every day, and then applied for a deferment to go to medical school at the end of my undergraduate experience.
From medical school, I entered active duty as a surgical resident at Madigan Army Medical Center, which is in Tacoma, Washington, and trained in general surgery there. I had a research year in the middle of residency, which was the early impetus for my surgical research career. After completing that training around 2010, when the drawdown in Iraq was happening, instead of deploying, I was allowed to go to fellowship.
I applied and then completed my Trauma/Critical Care Fellowship at Vanderbilt. I was there for a little over two years and then returned to Madagan as a staff surgeon. Then I put my bags down and immediately went to Afghanistan for about ten months. Since then, I’ve been deployed nine times through the Middle East and Africa.
What inspired you to become a trauma surgeon?
It was a mentor in medical school that inspired me to pursue trauma. I thought I wanted to be a cardiologist or an electrophysiologist. During my surgical rotation one night, there was a situation involving multiple traumas, too many patients, and not enough surgeons and surgical residents to staff the OR. I had a great attending surgeon who took me under her wing. She said, “Well, you’re going to be my first assistant,” and as a third-year medical student, helping take out a spleen, it doesn’t get much better than that when no resident is elbowing you out of the way. That definitely piqued my interest. Then I did a bunch of research with my mentor Kim Davis, she’s now the division chair at Yale, which was it for me. That further influenced me to choose general surgery.
I had another great mentor during my residency, who was a trauma surgeon trained at LA County. There’s obviously a lot of trauma emphasis in the military, particularly during my training, which was the war’s height in Iraq and Afghanistan. It seemed to flow together naturally as I progressed in my education, and my career began to take shape.
What brought you to the Department of Surgery at UNC?
I’m part of a partnership between the United States Army and civilian trauma centers. I am one of the guinea pigs to get these programs started. The intent of beginning these programs was to find folks who have an academic surgical background, who can blend easily into a university setting, where all these programs are.
UNC was optimal for several reasons. First, is its proximity to Fort Bragg, an extensive military installation with lots of medical personnel. Secondly, the unit that I’m assigned to is located at Fort Bragg, a Special Operations Command unit, and so that’s a proximity relation that is hard to beat elsewhere.
Not to mention, UNC has a long history of supporting the military in the past, through training of medics. Dr. Daryhl Johnson is the Trauma Medical Director at UNC and has been actively engaged in fostering this relationship for a couple of years. His interest and the support from the General Surgery Division and the Chair have been essential. They’ve welcomed me with open arms. That’s the start of relationships that are key to getting the first few people in these military-civilian collaboration programs settled and working efficiently. By establishing these relationships allow us to then, in turn, provide meaningful educational experiences for people who rotate through after us.
Why did you decide to become a professor?
The military has a medical school in Bethesda, and their medical students have always rotated in our department of surgery out on the west coast where I was previously. I had a lot of medical students that I was responsible for helping to teach. I was an Associate Program Director of the general surgery residency at Madigan for eight years. I’ve had a lot of experience teaching and training residents and was the primary Mentor for R5s and the research Mentor for all the residents that rotate through the research program. Education and research have always been, at least for the last decade, a significant part of my life. So that translates well to my role at UNC.
What are some goals you would like to achieve during your time at UNC Surgery?
Establishing and continuing the research that I’ve been doing all along is one of my primary personal goals. The main goal overall is helping to lay the foundations for this military-civilian collaboration program. And that’s the most important thing. I can retire in a couple of years at this point in my career, but I’m in no hurry to get out.
The program intends to involve more than just a surgeon or two and an ER doctor. It’s conceptually designed to be a much broader scope in the relationship so that medics, nurses, and others can come to spend some time at UNC and see things that they may not usually see down the road at Womack Army Hospital. In an ideal world, there is a kind of continuous educational and clinical collaboration where each organization can mutually benefit.
That’s my number one goal, to help lay the foundation for that program and long-term strategic vision. A big part of that is me getting comfortable and meeting folks on the faculty, the staff, and the institution. Then, delving into my role as an educator for the folks who come through to maximize their experience.
Beyond that, the strategic vision of the program is to incorporate research as well. So, I intend to continue military relevant research while at UNC. UNC is well known for its surgical research, and I hope to add to that in my focus area, which is in combat casualty care.
What do you wish you had known when starting your medical study?
The field of medicine and the areas of focus are just so diverse. You don’t know what’s out there and what you can do as a medical student. It’s kind of like the kid that shows up on a college campus and feels compelled to pick a major their first year. There are many unique areas of medicine and surgery now that either didn’t exist or weren’t an established area just a few years ago. My wife is a great example. She trained in general surgery, preventive medicine, and is finishing her Ph.D. in epidemiology; yet she works in the private sector for a company that does artificial intelligence for predictive health analytics. Obviously, she is the brain in the family! I absolutely love my chosen career path and would not do anything else, but if I were looking back at myself as a first-year medical student, I would tell myself to cast a wide net.
Can you give me an example of when you had to overcome an obstacle on your road to becoming a surgeon?
Around 2004/2005, in the first couple of years, people were intentionally leaving training to go into the general medical officer pool. They were leaving to do more in the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
That was a question I had to face. Do I stay in my training program, or do I participate in the war? Obviously, no one thought we would still be fighting 18 years later. I had lots of conversations at the time, not knowing what the future was going to hold at that point. I had mixed feelings about the fact that I didn’t want to miss out on my training, but I wondered if I could be doing more for those injured if I just went as a GMO at that point. That was one situation early on that was a little unique. Most people don’t face that type of decision in their residency.
Since then, the hurdle has been maintaining balance. Balance in deploying every year for almost the last ten years, while maintaining a clinical practice, keeping my family intact and healthy, and having them know who I am, while at the same time doing my job overseas when necessary. It is a constant process that requires focus and fortunately, I have a wonderfully supportive and understanding family.
What motivates you to get out of bed in the morning?
Two things. One is I’m very keenly aware while I’m on active duty what my job is, whether I’m in a hospital in the United States or whether I’m overseas; to provide the best care possible in the worst circumstances that you can probably imagine. That is my motivation to do better every day.
The second thing that motivates me is the people. The folks that I work with within my unit are extraordinarily talented and motivated. The camaraderie we share is impressive; it’s hard to describe adequately. The people we take care of are awe-inspiring. So, it’s a constant drive and motivation to maintain a diverse set of very high standards that most surgeons don’t have to deal with.
Most surgeons aren’t worried about maintaining a seven-minute mile run pace, carrying a hefty backpack, and being able to operate and maintain cutting edge knowledge of what’s going on in surgery and medicine, as well as being able to jump out of an airplane. That’s not, I think, the concern of most practicing surgeons. That’s always at the forefront of my mind, keeping all those skills and capabilities as sharp as possible.
What profession did you want to be when you were a kid?
When I was a kid, I wanted to be a National Park Ranger. I’ve always been an outdoor enthusiast, hiking, climbing, skiing. Living in the Northwest, that was very easy to do; Mount Rainier was an hour from my house, and we lived right on Puget Sound. My mom shared that enthusiasm when I was a kid. We skied multiple times a year, and we made it a point of always going to a different National Park every year when I was young. Seeing the folks that were out there, running around the countryside, climbing and doing their thing, and helping other people excited me when I was younger. When I retire, that maybe my retirement gig.
What is one thing you wish your patients or coworkers knew about you before they meet you?
It’s hard to get to know people, understand their background, what they’ve done, or where they come from. It’s hard to compress the last 17 years of active duty life from the combat zone deployments to humanitarian missions. I commanded a forward surgical team for some time and then helped run a lab and a residency. When I talk to many civilian surgeons, they look at me like I’m crazy to try to do that much stuff in a short time or even at the same time overlapping. I think encapsulating that is difficult, and people will have to get to know me to understand my unique background.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?
Don’t pigeonhole yourself. What I mean by that is I find myself learning so many nonmedically related things. Not focusing on just being a doctor as a college student or as a high school student, but learning and reading a diverse collection of items. So reading more history, learning more computer science, putting a little more effort into music and art, things that build a much more well-rounded individual.
What might someone be surprised to know about you?
I think people would be a little surprised to know that their surgeon voluntarily jumps out of airplanes regularly. It’s terrifying, but it’s like anything that’s difficult, fundamentals are the key, and just you have to have a little bit of faith in the end. It drives home that attention to detail that is probably good for surgeons in general, but people definitely have a double-take when they hear I’m going to jump out of a plane.
So what do you do when you aren’t working?
I run, cycle and I used to climb, but I’ll have to learn climbing on the East Coast. I mostly spend time with my family, my wife, and two young boys. We were regularly outdoor enthusiasts in the Northwest. We’ve been here about a month, and I think just about every free day, we’ve been driving around to find new trails and exploring the area. So if I’m not running or fulfilling my obligations with the Army, I’m probably out hiking with my family.
If you could pick the brain of someone alive or dead, who would it be and why?
I’d pick the brain of John Holcomb, a retired Army trauma surgeon who’s now switched over to UAB. I’ve had the chance to meet him but never the opportunity to sit down and have a lengthy conversation with him. He was a guy who started and championed what’s called the Joint Trauma System, which is what we would know as a civilian trauma system but did that in the middle of a war. He stood it up from scratch in Iraq and then expanded to Afghanistan. It seems like the military should have had something like that, but it didn’t, and this was only a few years ago.
He got the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force to play together, which is not always easy. He got the generals to listen to him. They had to fund it and support it and the importance of developing this thing, which has grown rapidly over the years. To do all that in the middle of the surge in Iraq when things were not going well is really impressive, and I’ve always hoped that I could get a chance to sit down with him and talk to him about all the different challenges and strategies that he employed. Surprisingly, there wasn’t always a lot of support for the medical effort.
How would you describe yourself in one word?
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
I would love to have the superpower of CT scan vision, where I can look at the patient and see where the injury or the disease is located and not have to wait. I want to be able to look at them as they come through the door and know exactly what the trauma is and where they are bleeding internally.