Go with the Flow

Hospitalist and avid surfer Dr. James Hawk has ridden life’s current across the globe, along the way establishing a career in medicine, raising a family in his hometown and navigating a pandemic wave

Written by Kinsey Gidick
Photographs by Mira Adwell

Going into medicine was never a foregone conclusion for Dr. James Hawk. The son of a general surgeon grew up around the medical world but didn’t see it in his future. Professional surfer? Sure. Doctor? No way.

“I didn’t want any part of it,” says Dr. Hawk from his Mount Pleasant office. “I actually studied economics in college and worked in finance for a little while.” Dr. Hawk got his undergrad degree at Davidson College and then dabbled in the financial world before taking off on an adventure about as far removed from his future as a board-certified internist as he could get: English teacher in South America. Little did this wayfarer know that experience would lead him to medical school after all.

While in Peru, Dr. Hawk ended up working with a nurse who was making house calls. There, his eyes were opened to the privilege of healthcare that first-world countries enjoy. “It gave me a different perspective on things,” he says. “The poverty that people are living in there is astounding.” Seeing that disparity firsthand ignited in him a passion for medicine.

On Call

Fourteen years later, after graduating from the Medical University of South Carolina, Dr. Hawk is now the medical director of the Roper St. Francis hospitalist service. In that capacity, he’s in charge of a relatively new specialty of medicine, hospitalist, a term that didn’t even exist 20 years ago.

“Hospitalists are the doctors that are manning and admitting and managing all of the internal medicine patients in the hospital,” Dr. Hawk explains. He is one of a growing cadre of physicians across the country dedicated to the care of seriously ill hospitalized patients, a role, he says, that satisfies his favorite part of being a doctor: getting to know people.

“Some doctors are really attracted to the science aspect of the job, and I enjoy that. But what I really like is the interaction with people. That’s what keeps me engaged in it. You don’t get that as much working in a bank,” he laughs, referencing his previous career path.

Hospitalist isn’t just a great job for Dr. Hawk, though; the service also greatly benefits patients. Before the hospitalist program started at Roper Hospital 15 years ago, he says, the standard model was that primary care doctors would admit their sick patients to the hospital and come to see them at the beginning or end of each day. “There was a lot of inefficiency built into that system, because those doctors were only available outside of their office hours. If an emergency came up during the day or a test result required some action or something else, they would be pretty tied up and have a hard time responding. It was difficult for them to care for patients who needed immediate attention.” The pattern also led to longer hospital stays. “Now I can say ‘I’m going to order this test now, and if it looks good, I’ll let you go home in two hours,’” Dr. Hawk explains.

SALT LIFE: Whether he’s enjoying the local beaches with his family or traveling to faraway destinations like El Salvador, Dr. Hawk is always in search of surf. 

Pandemic Pressures

Being as efficient as possible has been especially essential this year, when Roper St. Francis Healthcare found itself in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “At our peak, we had 150 inpatients at one time,” says Dr. Hawk.

With the lockdown, he says his staff was able to work swiftly to put in place protocols for the safety of patients and employees—like improved ventilation, personal protective equipment (PPE) and face masks—an exhausting goal that saw him working 26 days in July. Thanks to the all-hands-on-deck approach that Dr. Hawk and his staff follow, however, “we didn’t have to turn anyone away. We never transferred anyone to another system,” he says.

Of course, with hard work comes a need to recalibrate, and after weeks in the thick of pandemic care, Dr. Hawk naturally took a much-needed day off at his favorite place, the beach.

Off the Clock

One of the benefits of practicing medicine in Charleston is access to the ocean, and that’s been critical for the lifelong Mount Pleasant resident. Dr. Hawk picked up surfing as a boy and has made the sport the central focus of his travels around the world. He’s visited places like Indonesia, South Africa and Morocco in search of double overheads—surfer slang for waves twice as big as the rider.

As a father of two daughters in sixth and seventh grade, Dr. Hawk admits that not all family trips can focus on his favorite ocean hobby, though. “My kids love the beach, but they like to boogie board, not surf,” he says. As the pandemic continues, Dr. Hawk and his wife, Dr. Andrea Broyles Hawk, a Mount Pleasant-based psychiatrist, have focused their family’s attention on quality time together by taking long walks on the beach, riding bikes and generally staying outdoors as much as possible. With travel on hiatus, Dr. Hawk has also curbed his international surfing plans. Instead, he tries to grab any waves Charleston’s beaches bring in and has shifted some of his exercise to running.

“Getting my heart rate up and seeing something beautiful like a sunrise before an intense shift at the hospital gets me into the right mindset,” he says. It’s a chance to set his intentions for the day before returning to doing what he does best: getting to know his patients so that he can give them top-notch care in the most efficient way possible.

Name: Dr. James Hawk
Role: Medical director of Roper St. Francis Hospitalist Services Specialty: Internal medicine
Outside the office, find him: Surfing, running, biking and playing on the beach with his wife and two daughters while planning his next international trip in pursuit of double-overhead waves