Hilton Head doctor sees 35 years of change come to a close

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comAugust 27, 2013 

Robert Laughlin says a few words to members of the Hilton Head Hospital staff during his retirement party on Wednesday in the hospital lobby. Laughlin has been a physician at the hospital for 35 years.


Dr. Robert A. Laughlin's father begged him not open a plastic- and reconstructive-surgery practice on Hilton Head Island 35 years ago.

There weren't enough people here in 1978 to support Bob and Linda and their two little girls, Lara and Julie.

"When I came, there were 10,000 permanent residents, and I was told the practice would need 75,000," Laughlin said. "In the face of that, we said, 'Well, we'll see what happens.'"

Laughlin, who is retiring this week, has seen a lot of change on Hilton Head.

The girls have grown up and have children of their own. Linda, who has sometimes served as scrub nurse during his intricate hand surgeries, can now enjoy getaway trips to the mountains with a group of friends who call themselves "Women of the Woods." He has seen his parents enjoy their retirement and pass away on Hilton Head.

Probably the rarest thing he saw came shortly after he arrived. He reattached severed hands on two patients in two days. A nine-hour surgery on a Bluffton man ended at midnight, and by 9 p.m., Laughlin was back in the operating room, laboring until 4:30 a.m. the next day to reattach another hand, this one lost in a farming accident in Beaufort.

The late Dr. Tom Wood, the general surgeon at Hilton Head Hospital when it opened in 1975, was glad Laughlin didn't listen to his father. Laughlin could fill in for Wood every other night and every other weekend.

In those days, the hospital seemed to do more with less. The handful of doctors assembled by the friendly persuasion of Dr. Peter LaMotte did a lot of trauma work that now goes to Savannah. They performed brain surgery. They handled burns and major snake bites.

"We were trying to do what was necessary, whatever it took within our capabilities to help people who were sick or injured," Laughlin said. "I never thought much about it."

He said he has watched "incredible people come here and help make the area what it is."

He has seen medicine, and plastic surgery, evolve.

Just as he began his residency, he got a note from his father, internist Robert M. Laughlin in Pittsburgh. The elder doctor was aghast that someone was telling him how long a patient could stay in the hospital.

"That was the beginning of the current situation," his son says today. "A lot of non-doctors are telling doctors what to do."

Laughlin's practice has been bought by Dr. David Reid. Laughlin said he and Linda have no plans to move. Laughlin said he must now find a new identity that is not "doctor."

He will continue as medical coordinator for the Gift of Life program, but leave the surgery to others. Through local Rotary clubs and Hilton Head Hospital, it brings disfigured children from around the globe to the island for free, life-changing surgery that is unavailable at home.

Laughlin told me what he may have told his father 35 years ago. He didn't come to make a lot of money. He came to raise a family in a nice place.

"I think we achieved that," he said. "I have no regrets."

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