Getting to the heart of medicine: A cardiac and thoracic surgeon’s journey to volunteerism and primary care

Kelli Parker, BIFMC front desk volunteer, Brenda Falls, BIFMC executive director and Dr. David Peterseim, BIFMC medical director

Dr. David Peterseim, a former cardiac and thoracic surgeon at Roper Hospital, never would have believed he one day would practice family medicine at a free medical clinic.  

“When I transitioned from full-time surgery to volunteerism and primary care, I went from what felt like driving an 18-wheeler over the Ravenel Bridge every day to a slow and steady walk from point A to point B,” Dr. Peterseim said. “I have found something fun that I love doing just as much as cardiac and thoracic surgery. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my time there.” 

“Here” is the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic on Johns Island where Dr. Peterseim has served as medical director since 2021. The Clinic, supported by Roper St. Francis Healthcare, is a low-cost option for uninsured patients to build ongoing relationships with volunteer medical staff. The Clinic is where Dr. Peterseim found his new passion. 

“Working at the clinic has been such a gratifying experience,” Dr. Peterseim said. “We’re able to help people get better who maybe wouldn’t have gotten better otherwise.” 

Starting with the heart

While he has always loved all aspects of medicine, his interest began, quite literally, with a beating heart. 

Dr. Peterseim was first exposed to medicine at 17 years old when a family friend and The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center’s Surgery Department Chairman Dr. Larry Carey invited him to witness a six-hour operation.  

“This was back in 1977 before regulations would have prohibited this from happening,” said. Dr. Peterseim. “He put my sterile, gloved hand on this man’s heart and I felt this incredible beating muscle for the first time. From then on, I knew I wanted to become a cardiac and thoracic surgeon.”  

And that’s exactly what he did.  

Dr. David Peterseim earned his medical degree from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., alongside his wife and ophthalmologist Dr. Mae Millicent Winfrey Peterseim. They both completed residencies at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and went on to spend the first leg of their careers teaching at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in Hershey, Pa.   

In 1998, Dr. David Peterseim moved to Charleston, S.C., taking a job as a cardiac and thoracic surgeon at Roper Hospital, where he worked for 15 years.  

“I am eternally grateful for all the people I worked with, performing operations all hours of the day and night with them,” said Dr. Peterseim. “I learned so much from my colleagues, including Drs. Jim Morris and John Spratt.” 

He wanted to use those skills to reach even more people.  

Going overseas

While working at Roper Hospital, Dr. Peterseim traveled to India twice to teach various surgical techniques with other medical staff volunteers at Wanless Hospital in Miraj. 

“There was this wonderful Indian surgeon there who got his continuing education by scrubbing with doctors from other countries,” Dr. Peterseim said. “He was brilliant and made roughly $400 a month as one of the only pediatric, vascular and cardiac surgeons in a city with a population of around 80 million. 

Although he relished these international outreach experiences, Dr. Peterseim didn’t have as much time to devote to volunteer work when he returned.  

“The industrialized medicine experience can get overwhelming with the number of obligations you have to fulfill,” Dr. Peterseim said.  

When he retired from Roper Hospital in 2013, his wife suggested they try something new. He and his family moved to Costa Rica where they lived for a year. They enrolled their seventh-grade twins in a local school so that they could learn Spanish while the two doctors volunteered at local medical facilities.   

Dr. Peterseim volunteered at Clínica Cristiana de La Carpio, a medical clinic serving mostly Nicaraguan refugees. There, he performed ambulatory surgeries, removing bullets fragments, skin lesions, abscesses and disfiguring keloids.  

The clinic was in a slum down the street from the city’s main dump in a four-zone drug cartel area. 

“During the day, the clinic was safe,” said Dr. Peterseim. “The local people loved it because of the compassionate care the team provided. It was so rewarding to be part of that community.” 

Giving back at home

When he and his family returned to Charleston, Dr. Peterseim felt inspired to continue his outreach efforts, this time in the local community.  

He began volunteering as a medical practitioner at the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic in 2014. There, he was able to apply the Spanish he learned in Costa Rica to the clinic’s patients, many of which are Spanish speaking.  

He has since served in various roles at the clinic including coordinator for minor surgery, the virtual medicine physician coordinator and head of the Clinic’s Strategy Initiative Committee.  

Dr. Peterseim believes the healthcare industry needs to offer care for people without insurance.  

“We all benefit from living in a community where everyone is healthy, but that isn’t possible if not everyone has the same access to the right doctors, services or medicine,” he said.  

A patient in the clinic’s waiting room expressed his gratitude.  

“This place has been saving my life for the past eight years,” he said. 

The clinic also has a special partnership with Roper St. Francis Healthcare, which donates diagnostics and IT support. Roper St. Francis Physician Partners in cardiology, neurosurgery, general surgery, orthopedic surgery and cardiothoracic surgery also provide free emergency services and specific elective services for the clinic’s patients. 

Dr. Peterseim urges his former colleagues interested in outreach opportunities to take the leap.  

“You have the talents. If you’d like to use them outside of the workplace, know that you’ll get paid triple what you would otherwise by the gratification of knowing that you’re helping people who can’t afford the care they deserve.”  

Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic
Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic
Dr. Peterseim and medical staff volunteers at Wanless Hospital in Miraj
Dr. Peterseim and medical staff volunteers at Wanless Hospital in Miraj
Dr. Peterseim with medical staff volunteers
Dr. Peterseim with medical staff volunteers
Dr. Peterseim in surgery
Dr. Peterseim in surgery

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