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Thomas Rivers, Charleston OB-GYN, dies at age 86

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Dr. Thomas Rivers is pictured with Bohicket (left) and Gully (right) at his downtown home in 2006. File/Staff

Thomas Pinckney Rutledge Rivers, a leader in progressive obstetrics and gynecological surgical techniques who delivered thousands of Charleston babies over his 40-year career, died Monday. He was 86.

A native of peninsular Charleston known by all as Tommy, Rivers was an elegant, yet unpretentious stretch of a physician. He was known to possess a deep and abiding reverence for the natural world, whether it took the form of a newborn child, a fledgling bird or a native wildflower.

"Even though he was highly educated, highly knowledgeable, and very brave in his own way, he didn't tolerate people who would put on airs," said Dr. Teddy Gilbreth, a friend. Their families have been close for generations. 

After graduating from Episcopal High School and Davidson College, Rivers enrolled in the Medical College of South Carolina, which was followed by a year of internship and four years of residency. After two years in the Army, in 1968 he joined a medical practice with Drs. Richard Sosnowski and James Wilson to practice obstetrics and gynecology. 

At the end of his first year as a medical student, he found his calling when he was directed by a doctor to deliver a baby at the old Roper Hospital. He went on to deliver as many as 7,000 babies, some spanning generations in the same family. He also served as the chairman of the Obstetrics & Gynecology Department of Bon Secours St. Francis.

“I've been so blessed, because it's a miracle every time,” Rivers said in a 2017 interview with Historic Charleston Foundation, adding that he never got used to the magnitude of that miracle.

Rivers was also the first physician in South Carolina to use a laparoscope in gynecological procedures, enabling women to recover more quickly. At the same time, he aimed to educate women about their bodies. Once, while visiting a class at Ashley Hall, he brought along a placenta as a means to educate.

Above all, the energetic Rivers, who was said to thrive on the stimulation of the delivery room, placed an emphasis on patient care that was both personal and candid. According to Gilbreth, this was at times a daunting task during spells as the sole physician in his practice. It also compelled him to go against common protocols of the time by allowing fathers into the delivery room.

His professional and personal passions would sometimes dovetail. He once covered his rounds in hip boots, produced to navigate a flood. Another time he delivered a baby with a quail still tucked in his hunting coat pocket, having rushed to the hospital to detect mid-delivery the bird's fluttering.

Gilbreth noted how this engagement with nature informed both his work and his friendships. 

"We've been texting each other for years, and he would always send me pictures of wildflowers and so forth to identify," Gilbreth said, recalling a bit of banter and jovial one-upmanship to the ongoing exchange.

An amateur ornithologist, Rivers helped to rediscover the Bachman's warbler in South Carolina. He also cultivated his love of the outdoors with a cadre of childhood friends who often spent time together at wildlife havens like Lavington Plantation, donning themselves "The Sportsmen."

Another longtime friend, Gilly Dotterer, began joining his father on forays into the woods with Rivers as a child.

"He was one of the most enthusiastic participants in any outdoor activity that I can ever remember," said Dotterer, who attributes his own love of such pursuits to his friend's fervor.

When he settled into life as a family man, Rivers could often be found holding horses for his children at shows or overseeing a menagerie of kids and animals at home. A devout Christian, he forged deep friendships throughout his life that were marked by a brand of attentiveness. 

Gilbreth also noted that along with Rivers' courtly and humble demeanor, he possessed an ironic, mischievous twinkle.

"He could say stuff that other people couldn't," Gilbreth said of Rivers.

It was a life that Rivers never took for granted.

“It was a phenomenal, phenomenal ride,” he said in the Historic Charleston Foundation interview. “You just have to be thankful ... because He's in charge, that's it.”

Thomas Pinckney Rutledge Rivers was born on July 23, 1934, to George Lamb Buist Rivers and Ethel Pinckney Rutledge Rivers. He is survived by his wife of 39 years, Mary of Charleston, SC; seven children: Elizabeth Rivers Meadows (Glenn), Frances Rivers Slay (Brian), Elise Rivers Kennedy (Sean), Thomas Pinckney Rutledge Rivers Jr. (Lisa), Caroline Pinckney "Cacky" Rivers (Angelo), William Thomas Rivers (Charlotte) and Ellen Rutledge Rivers (Taylor); 12 grandchildren: Charles Heath Heyl IV, Anne Heyl Kody, Eliza Turner Heyl, Alston Rivers Slay, Richard Andrew Slay, Kyle William Kennedy, Madeleine Elise Kennedy, Charlotte Elizabeth Lazarus, Moultrie Rutledge Rivers Williams, Caroline Pinckney Williams, William Alexander Rivers and Abigail West Rivers; sister-in-law, Carroll W. Rivers; three great-grandchildren; and numerous cousins, nieces and nephews. He was preceded in death by his parents and his brother, George Lamb Buist Rivers Jr.

Funeral arrangements are by J. Henry Stuhr. Memorials may be made to St. Andrews Church of Mount Pleasant, 440 Whilden St., Mount Pleasant, SC 29464 or The Center for Birds of Prey — Avian Conservation Center, 4719 North Hwy 17, Awendaw, SC 29429.

Follow Maura Hogan on Twitter at @msmaurahogan.

Maura Hogan is the arts critic at The Post and Courier. She has previously written about arts, culture and lifestyle for The New York Times, Gourmet, Garden & Gun, among other publications.

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