Greg Sharp was fascinated by all the "cool stuff" his family doctor got to do, and was just 9 years old when he decided he wanted to do that kind of thing, too.
"When I went to the doctor's office, I just thought things were cool there, like for instance you cut yourself and you go there and you sit there and watch the doctor stick you, numb up your finger and stitch it up, remove a wart or you know just common things that kids have done," says Sharp, "I wanted to do that." He grew up in Crossett, a rambunctious, accident-prone kid who fractured so many bones his mother worried for a time that he might have brittle bone disease.
Sharp set out to become a family practitioner in his small hometown -- just like Dr. C.E. Ripley, that physician he admired -- but he modified his plans after walking into Arkansas Children's Hospital for the first time as a medical student in 1987.
"I figured out pretty quickly that I really liked it. It was just such a happy, nurturing environment," says Sharp, senior vice president and chief medical officer of the hospital. "All the people smile, you get treated well as a student and the food in the cafeteria was even better. It was a wonderful place, and it's still that way. I decided I had to figure out a way to work at this hospital for the rest of my life."
Sharp went to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, N.Y., for training in child neurology and returned to Children's in 1990. He helped start the Arkansas Children's Comprehensive Epilepsy Program, the only one in the state with a National Association of Epilepsy Centers Level 4 accreditation.
"The hospital purchased a single video EEG recording unit and we were on our way," he says. "We grew our program to where it is today, with 14 video EEG monitoring systems for 24 hour per day recording."
In 1996, he wrote a proposal for a clinical Neuroscience Center at Children's, the goal being a centralized system with multispecialty clinics so that children with certain disorders could be seen by several specialized teams in a single visit. This, he knew, would be a huge benefit to families traveling from across the state and who otherwise had to schedule appointments in various specialties on multiple days, requiring either more than one trip or an overnight stay.
"We outgrew the first 18-room clinic and subsequently moved to our present Neuroscience Center that includes 30 exam rooms, two treatment rooms and a state-of-the-art neurophysiology lab," he says.
Lesley Oslica is Arkansas Chapter President of the Children's Tumor Foundation, which supports families with neurofibromatosis, a genetic condition that results in tumors forming on nerve tissue. It affects 1 in 3,000 people across the United States, including Oslica's daughter, Katie Holt.
Holt, now 30, became a patient of Sharp's when she was diagnosed at 9.
"He was just the calm and the reassurance that I needed, that everything was going to be OK, even it if wasn't OK," Oslica says. "This is a progressive disorder. It could be life-threatening or she could live to be 60 without having any problems. Dr. Sharp was very dedicated and very good at calming those fears, even if we didn't have all the answers we needed."
Oslica encouraged Sharp to start the Neurofibromatosis Clinic, one of about 20 multidisciplinary clinics within the Neuroscience Center.
"I would just tell him there was a need because all of our families were having to go to St. Louis or Houston for care," she says. "I mean, they could still receive care from different doctors but with nobody really focused on neurofibromatosis care."
Oslica had asked Sharp several years in a row if he would participate in Dancing With Our Stars, the annual fundraiser for the Arkansas Chapter of the Children's Tumor foundation, but she says, "For years, he dodged the bullet."
She had all but given up on the prospect when she heard from one of his patients last year that he was going to participate.
"I have no background in dancing, I have no rhythm, or very little, but Lesley is a human dynamo and when she has a cause she is going to produce a result. She has done a phenomenal job with it," he says.
"I always had an excuse as to why I couldn't do it -- I've had three back surgeries, I don't have any rhythm, I can't get out there and do that. Last year, for some reason, I said, this lady's never going to leave me alone. It's probably now or never."
Sharp and his instructor, Allison Stodola Wilson, settled on a disco theme. He wore a white three-piece suit, just like John Travolta's in "Saturday Night Fever." And, as nervous as he was, he won the award for best performance for dancing to "Staying Alive."
"My outfit was popular, and that was my era," he says. "I was in high school at the peak of disco dancing and leisure suits, long hair."
Sharp is gearing up to cheer on this year's Dancing With Our Stars, featuring Dr. D.J. Dailey, Julie Gorma, Susie Morgan, Ted Mullenix, Donnie Van Patter and the Democrat-Gazette's own Helaine Williams.
Last year's event was entirely virtual because of covid-19 restrictions, but this year's event will be held live in-person at the Robinson Center Ball Room as well as being streamed virtually at 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 9. Virtual tickets are $50 and in-person tickets are $250.
Wilson says her dance with Sharp was filmed last year without the support of an audience.
"He was so nervous but he nailed it," Wilson says. "He was amazing to work with. He's funny and laid back and I can now see why he's great with kids. He's just an awesome human being."
Ginger Marshall's daughter Myleigh, 11, agrees. Myleigh was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis when she was almost 2, and suffers from neurofibromatosis-related migraines. She likes Sharp so much that she takes him a small gift each time she goes in for an appointment -- Lego creations, a rock that looks like a bandage, a fidget toy.
"He's special. We don't take presents to any other doctors," says Marshall, of De Queen. "He has been great with Myleigh. Always. They have a little joke where he comes in and takes her shoes and pretends he's going to put them in his pocket. He always remembers things about her, like what grade she's in or what she's into and what's going on in her life. They've just always had a really fun relationship where they can tease with each other, and it just feels more personal than it does with a lot of other doctors."
Tammy Diamond-Wells, vice president of clinical and diagnostic services at Children's, says his visit to her daughter, Abigail, 17, changed her outlook. Abigail was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2019 and had to have her right leg amputated because of the disease, and Sharp rounded on the hematology/oncology unit one evening when she was in-patient for a chemotherapy treatment.
"The best thing he said was, 'Abigail, do you want to know what the best thing about my day was today?' She was like, 'Yeah.' And he said, 'It was your smile,'" Diamond-Wells says. "The authentic compassion I see from him as a provider, as a physician, it's remarkable. It's second-to-none."
Diamond-Wells says she and Abigail refer to that statement often.
"For someone to be on toxic drugs like chemotherapy and to be taking it like a champ, in the midst of nausea ... and just to smile, he said it was remarkable," Diamond-Wells says. "That statement perpetuated that smile, and she would say, 'Mom, I chose to get up and robe myself with joy because I'm still alive.'"
Diamond-Wells, a nurse, worked closely with Sharp over the years, beginning with their collaboration on the hospital's Patient Experience Task Force, which was formed to "improve our patient experience on campus."
"Since then we've been connected at the hip on a lot of projects," she says.
Most recently, they were part of an informal coalition to address an increase in mental health and aggressive patient demonstrations in the Children's emergency department since the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic.
"Before I could even ask him, he started partnering with the five outside psych facilities on how we can expedite transfers because one thing that was important to me was that we did not have patients boarding in the ED," she says, explaining that those patients deserve a quiet space to get the care they need. "He initiated that conversation and included me in it, which was very important because a lot of times you don't have people that will invite you to the table. He knows how to do that very well and is very inclusive."
She's grateful for his collaborative efforts and says there has been a decline in the time it takes patients to be admitted since he got involved.
MORE THAN JUST A BOSS
Dr. Erin Willis, a neurologist at Children's, met Sharp when she was a medical student and credits him with her decision to become a neurologist.
"He's really been my mentor, through medical school residency, fellowship and now as an attending," she says. "He just really has this special way of interacting with kids. He has a way of making sure they know that the visit is all about them and I've always been impressed by that. It's something I strive to be as a doctor."
Sharp was in the waiting room when Willis' twin sons were born at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.
"After I gave birth he was there with his stethoscope and he was checking on the boys. He was just there to make sure they were OK and that everything looked good," she says. "I was like, 'What kind of boss does that?' He didn't have to do that. That's just the kind of guy he is."
Sharp enjoys telling stories and visiting patients, Willis says, although he does less of that since he moved into an administrative role in 2018.
"It's not just walking in there and finding out why they're there and taking care of the medical issues," she says. "It's asking them about their last fishing trip or what high school they go to. He knows almost every mascot of the high schools in Arkansas."
Sharp grew up in Crossett, home of the Eagles.
"My dad worked for the paper mill. You know, everybody in Crossett worked at the paper mill," he says. "Everybody had a job because the paper mill was really huge and thriving then. Nobody was rich, but nobody was poor either."
His father always had an extra job or two on the side, and he was the kind of guy who could "fix anything with a piece of wire and a roll of duct tape." He always found time to spend with his son.
"He probably hit me a million ground balls," Sharp says. "And he took me hunting and fishing and I loved it, and he loved to take me. It was quality time."
Even after deciding Arkansas Children's Hospital was his dream employer, Sharp didn't immediately settle upon neurology as his medical specialty.
"I thought about general pediatrics but I really wanted to be in that Children's Hospital environment, and I thought about neonatology -- my first two children were premature twins that died when I was a senior in medical school," he says. "I really liked cardiology as well and I thought about that. And then someone said, 'You ought to think about being a neurologist. We only have one.'"
Moving to Minnesota from his home in "L.A.," short for "Lower Arkansas" took some adjustment.
"My first winter there I got cabin fever pretty bad and wanted to be outside so decided I was going to go ice fishing," he says.
He didn't want to invest in an auger to cut the ice, so he took a hatchet to hack away at it instead.
"When I got down to two and a half feet I quit," he says. "I had no idea it was so deep."
These days, Sharp spends as many weekends as possible at his cabin on the Little Red River. He used to fish at every opportunity, and he stills enjoys casting his line when conditions are right and the fish are biting.
Otherwise, he finds something else to do, like spending time with his wife, Lynn, or his three children and four grandchildren or building furniture. He has made a kitchen table, a hanging television stand like the ones he saw in Italy, and a back porch.
In his professional role, he has sometimes had to give families bad news about diagnoses. He does his best not to prognosticate. He's been "blown away" by children's recoveries, after all, watching them make progress after illness or injury that he had not anticipated, especially early in his career. He sees children who have brain tumors, though he is grateful to report most are benign, or who suffer from chronic headaches or some level of disability.
"I have one golden rule and that's 'Do what's best for that child.' That may mean recommending a procedure for that child, starting that child on a medication or a test, making a decision in that regard, or now it may be that we create a new position and start a new program," he says. "It's what's needed, what the children in the state need. And as long as we can just use that as our primary rule, we'll always make the right decision to do what's right for the patient. That's all that counts."
Oslica is glad for that approach. The creation of the Neurofibromatosis Clinic at Children's, she says, has been a godsend for families like hers.
Children's and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute will be developing a transition program, Oslica says, and that program will work toward becoming a part of the national Neurofibromatosis Network.
"As the parent of a neurofibromatosis-affected child who's an adult now, it just meant the world to us to not have to travel out of state to feel like we were getting good care," she says. "Then our focus and passion became to have an adult clinic because once they age out at 18 years of age, adults have really different needs for focus and care than pediatrics does.
"What's happening in Arkansas is really amazing and it gives the NF population hope that they can get top-notch care right here in Arkansas," she says.
Sharp credits his colleagues at Children's with working to meet the diverse needs of Arkansas children.
"I have been blessed to work here 30 years and do exactly what I was supposed to do," says Sharp, who has no plans to retire anytime soon. "If anybody can say that after 30 years, they will have had a pretty good run."