Columbia surgical line ends after a bunch of Bunches

jholleman@thestate.comMarch 29, 2013 

— For the first time in more than a century, a Dr. Bunch won’t be available to perform general surgery in Columbia next week.

Dr. Robert Bunch, who followed his father and grandfather into the surgical field, retired Friday from Surgical Associates of S.C. He performed his final procedures as primary surgeon on Thursday and helped an associate with a hiatal hernia operation Friday morning.

Bunch plans to go to the coast to do some fishing during the weekend. “And I might not come back on Sunday like I always have in the past,” he joked.

Bunch has been practicing at the three Columbia hospitals since 1980, working briefly alongside his father, Dr. George Bunch Jr., who worked even more briefly in the same practice with his father, Dr. George Bunch Sr., who was doing surgeries until the day he died in 1951.

The first of the three began working in Columbia sometime early in the first decade of the 1900s. Since Robert Bunch’s two sons chose careers in environmental permitting and banking, the line of Bunch surgeons ended on Friday.

“I guess 100 years of Bunches (doing surgery) in Columbia is enough,” said Bunch, who along the way also served stints as chief of staff and chief of surgery at Palmetto Health Baptist. His father and grandfather also served as chief of staff at Baptist.

As a child, Robert Bunch didn’t plan to follow in the family business. But the further he went in school, the more he gravitated toward studying biology. And when he started at the Medical University of South Carolina, surgery was what piqued his interest most.

His father never overtly guided him down the medical path. It’s not like a baseball player, who can toss a ball with his child, or a restaurant owner, who can let a child bus tables. He couldn’t go to work with his dad growing up.

But thinking back, Bunch recalls his father’s more subtle advocacy for his profession. “Just watching him, he obviously enjoyed what he did,” Bunch said. “It is a very, very satisfying life, and it is a life, not a job.”

If that’s the case, why is Bunch quitting at the relatively young age of 65?

“I love surgery,” he said. “If I could do just surgery, I’d do it like my grandfather, until the day I die.”

But the medical field has changed in the past two decades, with new levels of bureaucracy creating what Bunch called “the hassle factor.” It’s difficult having to argue with an insurance company thousands of miles away about the need for a procedure based on some algorithm, he said.

Another factor prompting his retirement is his own health. His family has a long history of heart problems. Trouble began for Bunch at age 45. After he had heart surgery at age 60, he promised his family he would retire at 65.

He didn’t want a big fuss about him on his last day, but his staff insisted on decorating his office with balloons and streamers. As he walked down the hall one last time flanked by staffers Natasha Porter and Samantha Floyd, they joked with him.

“You two are up to something,” Bunch said.

“It’s all in your mind,” Porter said. “And you know that’s the first thing that goes when you retire.”

Then they rounded the corner to find the break room full of office co-workers waiting to say goodbye.

Porter and Floyd fought back tears during the special (and to please Bunch, healthy) lunch gathering. Bunch, however, was all smiles and thank yous.

“It’s actually a great day once you make this decision and you’re comfortable with it,” Bunch said.

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