Professor emeritus honored for devotion to patients with sickle cell disease

James Eckman created the first 24-hour comprehensive acute care center for the disease

Emory Medicine | Feb. 14, 2014

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Out of an abiding concern for continuity of patient care, retiring founder James Eckman created the Georgia Sickle Cell Center at Grady Memorial Hospital in 1984, the first 24-hour comprehensive acute care center for the disease. Above, Eckman chats with patient Michelle Jones in 2008.

Professor Emeritus James Eckman, founder and medical director of the Georgia Sickle Cell Center at Grady Memorial Hospital who retired from Emory Hematology and Medical Oncology in September 2013, was honored on November 16 with a Sickle Cell Scientific Symposium celebrating his career.

The symposium, which attracted more than 100 sickle cell experts, colleagues, and friends, was held at the Emory Conference Center and included presentations on sickle cell complications, treatments, research, and clinical trials, as well as a reception and a tribute to Eckman, who led the center for 35 years.

Emory recruited Eckman in 1978 for the specific purpose of initiating a comprehensive program for patients with sickle cell disease. After intensive state lobbying for funding in 1984, the Georgia Sickle Cell Center, the world's first 24-hour comprehensive acute care center for the disease, was established. Prior to this, patients were seen in Atlanta-area emergency rooms and the continuity of care was low. In 2006, Eckman was honored by the Georgia General Assembly for his sickle cell work. "With few resources, Dr. Eckman obtained grant funding to support the salaries of a genetics nurse, a social worker, and a clinical nurse specialist in psychiatry as the beginning of a multidisciplinary team to treat sickle cell disease," the resolution read.

Eckman recruited and trained a team of PAs and NPs for continuity to provide emergent treatment and primary preventive care in a cost-efficient way. "He was always available to help us manage difficult patient problems day or night," said former program coordinator and physician assistant Allan Platt 79A 06A. "Patients knew that he cared about them and they trusted him, so they would come from great distances for treatment."

More than 3,000 patients, from pediatric to adult, have been cared for at the center, which is on the ground floor of Grady. The center has become an international model in how to care for sickle cell patients. "We provide all of our patients' health care needs, from primary care through crises," Eckman has said. "This disease puts such a burden on someone's life, we want to minimize visits to health care facilities for them as much as we can."

Eckman has been an enthusiastic patient advocate and has championed newborn screenings for the disease locally and nationally (Georgia adopted universal mandatory screening for newborns in 1998). Emory was also one of the leading centers to provide bone marrow transplants to cure the disease and performed the first unrelated cord blood stem cell transplant.

As a professor of medicine and adjunct professor of pediatrics, Eckman has taught countless medical students, residents, and fellows the "art and science" of patient care. Through earlier diagnosis and treatment, those with sickle cell disease can lead longer, healthier lives; Eckman is happy to say that he has cared for patients in their 80s.