High Flyer

Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated orthopaedic surgeon—and former Air Force pilot—Dr. Robert Sullivan is committed to living life to its fullest

Written by Kinsey Gidick

Photographs by Scott Henderson

In April 1992, a group of American and Russian scientists working atop an Antarctic ice floe drifting through the Weddell Sea—one of the most remote bodies of water on the globe—needed help. 

“All of their fuel was contaminated, so we had to do an emergency resupply airdrop,” explains Dr. Robert Sullivan, a Roper St. Francis Healthcare affiliated orthopaedic surgeon and former special operations aircraft commander for the United States Air Force. Dr. Sullivan and his team flew in low and parachuted down the critical supplies. “It was a really neat experience,” he says of the mission. 

“Neat” may sound like a gross understatement for cruising over Earth’s southernmost continent to save a crew. But for Dr. Sullivan—whose CV includes titles like active-duty Air Force pilot (he flew in Operation Desert Storm in 1990), combat surgeon (he served in Iraq in 2009 and Niger in 2016) and head physician for the United States Air Force Academy—it is but one in a long line of adventures. 

The irony is that Dr. Sullivan never planned to be a pilot. When the New Jersey native enrolled in the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in 1984 for his undergraduate degree, a career in medicine was his goal. Peer pressure got the better of him. “My friends encouraged me to start flying, telling me I could always go to medical school,” he says. “So after graduating, I enrolled in pilot training in Arizona and started on C-141s.”

(left) Dr. Sullivan with his family; (right) in the U.S. Air Force.

That specialty training is what first led Dr. Sullivan to Charleston. “Five months after Hugo, I was stationed here to fly C-141 special operations,” he says. Over the next six years, Dr. Sullivan flew to more than 50 countries, truly seeing the world. 

But his love of flying couldn’t keep him from his initial goal: medicine. So in 1995, he applied to—and was accepted at—the Medical University of South Carolina. He went on to complete his residency in orthopaedic surgery at Wilford Hall Medical Center in Texas and a fellowship in shoulder surgery and sports medicine at Duke University Medical Center. 

Upon completing his fellowship at Duke, a job in sports medicine fortuitously opened up at his alma mater. “I served as the head of athletics for the Air Force Academy,” he says casually of the role. Dr. Sullivan was in charge of the orthopaedic health of all Air Force cadet-athletes. “I traveled with the football team to every single game, even to the White House for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy presentation,” he explains.  

When Dr. Sullivan applied to medical school, it was with the understanding that he’d fulfill his remaining two-year commitment to the service as a doctor. So in 2009, he took a hiatus from the Air Force Academy role to care for active-duty combat soldiers in Iraq. “As horrific as the environment is taking care of servicemen wounded in combat, there is no better population to serve,” he says.

After returning to Colorado, Dr. Sullivan received another special mission: this one from his wife, Elizabeth—a Charleston native who he’d met while stationed here. “It was snowing in May, and she looked at me and said, ‘I swore I would never live anywhere where it snowed on Mother’s Day,’” remembers Dr. Sullivan. “I said, ‘I don’t know why you’re complaining—Mother’s Day isn’t until tomorrow!’”

Dr. Sullivan chuckles at the memory, but the message was clear: It was time to move somewhere warm. So in 2011, the family moved to Destin, Florida, where he took a job as chief of orthopaedic surgery at Eglin Air Force Base.

(left) Dr. Sullivan tending to Air Force Academy athletes; (right) during a deployment.

It was there that Dr. Sullivan learned of the critical need for orthopaedic surgeons overseas. So, naturally, he deployed again in 2016, this time to Niger. 

Dr. Sullivan’s fierce commitment to serve continues today in his practice in Charleston, where he, his wife and youngest daughter moved in 2018. In addition to treating orthopaedic patients with Roper St. Francis Healthcare, he is also the team doctor for The Citadel Athletics, where his love of the military tradition continues.

Now retired from the Air Force, he has more time to spend with his family and enjoy his favorite hobbies. Elizabeth is a Methodist minister and head pastor at Mount Pleasant’s Point Hope United Methodist Church, which plays a central role in the family’s life. 

When not seeing patients or taking part in church activities, the doctor can be found on or near the water. While his eldest daughters, Anna Grace (23) and Sarah Beth (20), are grown and flown, finding moments to fish with his youngest, Kennedy (13), is a treasured time. His other favorite diversion? Paddleboarding through the marshlands of Awendaw, where the family lives.

Hobbies like that, notes Dr. Sullivan, are key to lifelong orthopaedic health. “You have to get up and stay active,” he says. Even when you’re recovering from an injury, regular physical activity is critical.

“Don’t be sedentary,” he stresses. “Don’t spend your time in front of a TV watching other people live their lives.” Dr. Sullivan certainly lives that advice by example, but it’s a heart for service that defines his life. Whether a wounded veteran back from deployment or a retiree with a golf injury, his focus is the same. “For me, it’s all about the patient. The patient comes first—that’s why I’m here.”

Name: Dr. Robert Sullivan
Specialty: Orthopaedic surgery
Outside the Office, Find Him: Fishing or paddle-boarding in the waters of Awendaw and spending time with his wife, three daughters and two dogs