The good doctor


Robert ClodfelterAfter more than 20 years running the emergency department at Hilton Head Hospital, preceded by a decade working in a busy trauma center in Florida, Dr. Robert Clodfelter has his share of stories.

Not all of them are family friendly.

“But I’ll tell you some anyway,” Clodfelter says with a sly smile, hinting at the sense of humor required to not only survive three-plus decades starring in a real-life medical drama, but to thrive in such a position. 

And to think he wasn’t even planning on practicing medicine. 

Dr. Clodfelter wanted to be a marine biologist and was studying to do so while working at the Gulfarium Marine Adventure Park in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. 

He thought he had it all figured out until a chemistry professor set him straight. 

“He told me if I really wanted to do what I wanted to do, I’d have to join the Navy,” Clodfelter recalls. “I didn’t want to join the Navy.” 

So he shifted gears, taking a volunteer shift at a local hospital, where he was assigned to the ER. On the first day, he and every available nurse raced to the trauma bay with a motorcyclist who had clipped a concrete pylon and was in danger of losing his leg — if not his life. 

Clodfelter vividly recalls trying not to lose his lunch. 

The doctors couldn’t save the leg, but they saved the life. 

Robert Clodfelter2“That was what got me into emergency medicine,” Clodfelter said. “I had to give up my dream of being the next Jacques Cousteau.” 

Dr. Clodfelter likes to say serendipity brought him and his wife, Tracy, to Hilton Head Island in 1997, and after hearing his tales from the Florida Panhandle, one would have to agree the move was quite fortuitous. 

He has stories of hunters who have tumbled out of a tree stand and impaled themselves, people with speargun wounds from angry roommate disputes, and loads of gunshot victims. 

On HHI, it’s a steady stream of visitors from the north who drink too much and wind up with severe sunburn, heat exhaustion, and dehydration or tennis players who overdo it in the Lowcountry’s often-stifling heat and humidity. 

“If you were to make a TV show about our ER in the summer, you’d have to have a pina colada in your hand and see what’s going on at the beach,” Clodfelter laughs. 

And whatever you do, don’t pee on that jellyfish sting. No, really, it’s a common enough question that Dr. Clodfelter has written articles debunking it. 

Thanks, Chandler and Monica. 

The serendipity didn’t end when the Clodfelters got to Hilton Head. In fact, some 15 years later, chance blessed the family again. 

After putting her nursing career on pause, Tracy became a school nurse when the couple’s youngest daughter, Ali, was in middle school. 

But Elaine Hastings, then the hospital’s chief of nursing, had other ideas. She coaxed Tracy to apply at the hospital, promising to keep her in a separate department from her husband. 

Tracy was hesitant. She completed the application online but couldn’t bring herself to submit it. 

A few days later, Hastings called to set up an interview, pleased that Tracy had decided to apply. 

It took some time to piece together that Ali had presumably hit the enter button, submitted the application, and revived her mom’s clinical nursing career. 

Just another sign that all those wild twists and turns along the way were leading Dr. Clodfelter to Hilton Head, where he relieves the stress of running an emergency department by biking, kayaking, gardening, and playing copious amounts of tennis. 

The past year was more trying than most, with the constant cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic hovering. 

Dr. Clodfelter is grateful for the support provided by Tenet Healthcare, which has coordinated resources between Hilton Head and Coastal Carolina hospitals, as well as an outstanding staff that has navigated the pandemic exceptionally well. 

“It’s great to have the dedication of the institution and its parent company to ensure we’re taking the best care of the patients and staying safe,” he said.