Care for a smile
A personal look at Dr. Hubli, a craniofacial and cleft surgeon at Cook Children's
For over two decades, Eric H. Hubli, M.D., has been nationally and internationally recognized for his work as a craniofacial and cleft surgeon. He has written and published extensively and has a career full of milestones that includes his work as a pioneer in the field.
An early advocate for distraction osteogenesis in the facial skeleton, he helped to develop one of the first multi-planner devices used for lengthening the mandible in children. After a brief surgery, the device is used to slowly lengthen bones that are congenitally too small. Over the course of two weeks, daily adjustments actively stretch the native structures so that new bone and soft tissue can be created as the surgeon works to restore facial balance and harmony.
Dr. Hubli has crisscrossed the globe in the name of craniofacial and cleft care, operating and educating from Brazil to Romania and from Finland to Saudi Arabia. He has been asked to speak on the topics of quality in medicine, craniofacial and cleft care and enhancing patient satisfaction at sites, including Harvard University and the Mayo Clinic. His work has been featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show and in Parade Magazine.
But Dr. Hubli is known for more than his skill as a surgeon. It’s the approach to the way he cares for “his kids” that makes him special.
“When I meet new families I like to joke with the moms and dads and tell them, ‘Now, these are my kids too,’” Dr. Hubli said. “I have two wonderful kids of my own. These are my extra kids, my extended family if you will. When I offer advice to parents or make medical or surgical decisions for my patients, I make the same decisions based on what I would do for my own child and trust me … I love my children dearly.”
Dr. Hubli has two children – Alexander, 17, and Sidney, 12, -- and has been married to Joni for 26 years.
It was Dr. Hubli’s brain that Joni says first attracted her to him. No so much his intelligence that would make him a world-class craniofacial surgeon, but his sense of humor.
“He likes to make everybody laugh,” she said. “He’s always been that way. I liked him the first time I met him. He had a great sense of humor. It helps him as a doctor, especially treating children and talking to parents. He has a way of lightening up a situation and that helps them to feel good.”
Dr. Hubli has a unique reason as to why he relates well to his patients – he was once in their shoes. As a child, Dr. Hubli spent many hours in a hospital while he was a youngster in Connecticut. He suffered from complications due to allergy induced asthma.
Things were different back then. Parents were only allowed to visit for a couple of hours a day and there were no parental overnight stays. A week-long stay in a cold-multi-bed pediatric hospital ward left a lasting impression on a 5-year old mind. The facilities were grim, but Dr. Hubli found that the caregivers, the doctor and staff could be rays of sunshine when times were trying. Joni believes that’s what led him into a career as a physician.
And what made him work with kids? More than anything else, Dr. Hubli simply wants to repair a child’s face so he or she can smile. After all, smiles and laughs are so important to the self-professed clown.
Watch him walk down the halls of the medical center and you’ll see him stop and joke with almost anyone he sees, especially the children. Maybe, it’s because he identifies with their sense of humor.
“Pediatrics is a perfect fit for Eric because he can still see the lighter side of life,” Joni said. “Like a kid, he looks to have fun in everything he does and that makes him fun to be around. He has a saying, ‘I have to grow old, but I don’t have to grow up.’ He’s a great doctor and very skilled, but he is not afraid to let his silly side out. We were talking at lunch the other day and he said, ‘Our 12-year old daughter is more grown up than I am.’”
But make no mistake; Dr. Hubli takes his career and the kids he cares for seriously. For him craniofacial and cleft surgery is not just a job, it’s a vocation. Joni will tell you that “he takes his work home. He still studies, he still reviews, he challenges himself to be better every case and we see the distracted dad at home sometimes because he’s thinking about a patient.”
His dedication is energized by the strength of his patients and their families whom he calls “an essay in courage.” Dr. Hubli thought of becoming a priest as a teenager, but felt a stronger calling to becoming a physician. Either way, healing was the goal.
“Would that all of us have the same grace as these kids do! I don’t know if I would,” Dr. Hubli said. “But wow, these kids are cool. If you don’t believe in God, take a look at the kid next to you. It’s a miracle. It’s beyond my comprehension. You can talk to me about DNA and all the wonders of science, but how did these little strands make all of that? I have the degrees. I’ve taken genetics. I’m an educated person. But I say, ‘That it’s still a miracle.’”
Dr. Hubli’s surgical work on children varies. At times, he may be preventing a speech impediment that will stop a lifetime of being made fun or getting bullied. At other times, it’s a matter of performing a surgery that saves a child’s life by giving him or her opportunity to eat or breathe properly.
“Each case is unique because each child is unique. It’s not because of what they look like or why I’m seeing them, but because of who they are,” Dr. Hubli said. “Regardless of the child, the surgical goal is always the same. If I’m successful, their life truly becomes their own to mold and make. Their potential and their future are in their own hands.”
And many times, he’s performing that surgery with Richard Roberts, M.D., a neurosurgeon at Cook Children’s.
“I love working with Eric. We have a great friendship and work well together,” Dr. Roberts said. “The days that we have surgery together are among my most enjoyable. He is a funny guy and great entertainment, but when we step in the operating room it becomes all business. We share a common goal of trying to do the best for the children and we both carry that attitude through surgery until we’re finished.”
So you have two sides of Eric Hubli. The funny guy with hyperactivity issues (his word) … and the other guy, who happens to be a brilliant surgeon.
“I love having fun. In general, I think we all take ourselves too seriously,” Dr. Hubli said. “Don’t get me wrong. This work is not a game and I’m wholly committed to what I do. I work hard and I take my job very seriously. That said, there is healing in humor. I want what’s best for the children I care for, but that’s the thing, they are children and we are a children’s hospital. We should have fun so that our kids, our patients, can have fun even when what we do is some of the most serious and important work that you will ever find.”