Posted on: 06.23.2018 at 11:00 a.m.
By Margaret High
Whiteville is the latest adventure for Dr. Peter Chambers, the newest emergency medicine doctor for Columbus Regional Healthcare System. Known as “Surf Doc,” Chambers currently lives in North Myrtle Beach where he works with North Myrtle Beach Ocean Rescue in his off time.
With a love for the water, Chambers hopes to be heavily involved with the upcoming YMCA swimming program by supporting the Swim for Life programs. He recently published a children’s book explaining the importance of lifeguards and water safety, the proceeds of which go to the North Myrtle Beach Lifeguard Foundation.
Chambers knows a thing or two about adventure. A Santa Monica, Calif., native, his non-traditional path to becoming a doctor is explained by following what excited him.
The water has always attracted Chambers. He was 10 years old the first time he stood on a surfboard and has remained close to the water since. Both his parents were avid channel swimmers in England, their native country.
Swimming was synonymous to breathing for Chambers growing up. If it wasn’t in the ocean, it was in a pool, swimming competitively.
“My childhood was consumed with swimming,” Chambers said.
That transitioned into playing water polo in high school, then swimming at the Division III level in college at Chapman University. He graduated with a psychology degree, then pursued a doctorate in neuroscience.
In graduate school, Chapman found the science side of psychology interested him, so he figured medical school was the next move.
“My parents weren’t doctors, it’s literally something that evolved,” Chambers said. “(The school) kind of said, you’re really interested in the science side; you should go to medical school.”
The beach kept calling, causing Chambers to choose the University of New England for medical school. It’s one of few colleges that have sailboats for medical students.
Years of surfing and studying led to graduating, then searching for residency. For the first time in his life, Chambers found himself landlocked at the University of Wisconsin.
Being thrust out of school around the age of 30, Chambers was looking for more adventure.
“When you’re a resident in medicine, you get these (recruiting) cards from every place,” Chambers said. “I got a card that said, ‘Join the Navy, see the world,’ and I went, ‘That’s what I’m going to do, I’m going to join the Navy.’”
Chambers called the Navy, but no one answered the phone. He was sold into joining the military and pursuing a medical career, so he opened the Yellow Pages. The first entry he saw was the Air Force.
They answered the phone.
The next day, he went to Applebee’s and met two men in uniform. They had his enlistment papers already filled out, only needing Chambers’ signature.
Within two days, Chambers joined the Air Force.
It wasn’t at the urging of his parents. Both Chambers’ father and mother lived through World War II in England, with his mother witnessing D-Day’s launch from her hometown of Ramsgate.
Chambers wanted adventure, but it came with a cost. He endured “Survive, Evade, Resist, and Escape Training as an Air Force physician.
“It was more being locked in prison camp and learning how to survive off not eating food for a week,” Chambers said. “Like waterboarding, being locked in a closet for a few days.”
To commemorate overcoming the intense training, he has a tattoo around his right arm, a wave fixed into a heartbeat and the words, “Return with honor” on his inside bicep.
Surf Doc was his call sign in the Air Force, a symbol of his love for the ocean that followed him into deployment to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Africa.
After 15 years, another adventure awaited.
Chambers rededicated his life to swimming, becoming a U.S. National Swim Team physician, a voluntary job that resulted in regular e-mails and visits with Michael Phelps, Ryan Lockte, Missy Franklin and “any other big name you would recognize.”
He traveled Manchester, England, Shanghai, China and the 2012 London Summer Olympics with team U.S.A.
Time-consuming and not a paying job, Chambers decided to move on to another conquest, something totally different: Alaska.
There was no surfing in Bethel, Alaska, part of the Yukon Delta Wildlife Refuge, an open tundra with harsh weather conditions only accessible by air and river.
Yet Chambers spent a little over a year there, still sporting Hawaiian shirts when summertime temperatures reached a high of 60ºF.
Action and adventure have always drawn Chambers, despite his laid-back demeanor and love for an “ultimate Zen sport,” surfing.
Closer to warmer water, Chambers looks forward to his next chapter at Columbus Regional.
He takes time to make patients feel at ease and talk about something other than the reason they’ve come to the hospital.
“It’s a nice place,” Chambers said. “This is a great hospital, and I’m not just saying that. I’ve worked at a lot of hospitals. There’s a lot of extremely caring people here and Columbus County doesn’t really know how lucky they are.”
He noted that first responders here are the backbone of the community, and that he’s impressed by the number of volunteers.
Chambers knows the peace and power of water, which influences his passion. Despite being new to Columbus County, Chambers wants to start a push from the hospital to promote water safety and teach the county how to swim.
“My big thing with Surf Doc is not surfing, per se, my big thing is water safety, from a medical standpoint and public health standpoint,” Chambers said.
Drowning awareness and championing water safety are ahead of Chambers, as well as the dream of establishing the county’s first water polo team.
Chambers believes that a love for his work and a desire to never retire puts him in the perfect position to create an adventure out of his time at Columbus Regional.
The ER serves its purpose for him: it’s like a big wave.
Chambers waits in the ER, talking to those around him, then senses a big change coming, like the way the ocean pulls back before crashing down. As he goes from patient to patient, making them feel better, tending to their illnesses, it’s like popping up from the board and riding just in front of the foaming, powerful water.