Doctor for life

Updated: April 26, 2007 - 2:05 pm

HCMC icon still shaping the world of medicine at 93

Even though Wesley Burnham officially retired in 1985, you can still find the 93-year-old doctor donning his white medical coat at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC).

Burnham, of Eden Prairie, still reports in to HCMC in Elliot Park every Monday by 8 a.m. to catch a conference on the latest trends in orthopedic care.

The contract physician with Hennepin Faculty Associates has been part of Downtown’s medical community for nearly 50 years, and while he no longer has direct contact with patients, he often lectures students and advises residents on orthopedic medicine. He works half-days, three days a week.

He continues to work because it makes him “feel useful,” he said during a recent interview at the Downtown hospital.

Going on and on

Burnham credits “good genes” and healthy habits, such as keeping away from cigarettes and alcohol, with his good health and longevity.

Perhaps his love of adventure contributes as well. He has a pilot’s license and flew to Rochester with a friend for dinner on his birthday Feb. 16. In his younger days, big-game hunting was one of his favorite hobbies.

Burnham is a source of inspiration for his younger colleagues who marvel at his long career in medicine and seemingly endless reservoir of energy.

William Kane, a Minneapolis orthopedic surgeon, compared him to the Energizer Bunny.

“He just keeps going,” he said. “… He’s a guy who is looked up to in an iconic sense.”

Kane had high praise for Burnham’s contributions to medicine.

“He’s a doctor in the fullest sense of the word, and the word doctor means teacher,” he said.

Burnham has always stressed the importance of listening to patients, Kane said.

Watching patients

The nonagenarian doctor said he believes he can provide younger physicians with an important perspective.

“The younger generation is so steeped in technology. They put technology first and depend on it for a diagnosis, which can be misleading,” he said.

He points to the example of a resident who examined a patient with knee problems. Instead of watching him walk, which would have suggested the patient had hip problems based on his limp, he had the patient undergo a $4,000 surgery to investigate his knee, Burnham said.

“All the technology in the world doesn’t take the place of examining the patient,” he said.

Still serving

Burnham was a surgeon at Downtown hospitals from 1947 to 1985. He decided to retire at age 72 even though he still felt sharp because he dreaded the thought of someone asking him stop practicing medicine.

He started his career in orthopedic surgery in Minneapolis after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He served as chief of othorpedics for a hospital at Ft. Leonard Wood in Missouri and then moved onto a 3,000-bed hospital in New Guinea, where he treated soldiers injured in the Philippines.

In New Guinea, he became critically ill with hepatitis and was sent home to Minneapolis.

After he recovered from the illness, he became determined to get into orthopedics and completed residencies at a number of hospitals before starting his own practice. He had an office on Nicollet Mall in the Medical Arts Building and performed surgery at several Downtown hospitals.

When he started out in medicine, the city was home to a number of hospitals, including St. Barnabas, Swedish, Abbott, Northwestern and Eitel, among others. Many of the hospitals eventually closed or merged because the rising cost of healthcare made it too expensive for the smaller hospitals to remain open.

At the smaller hospitals, physicians and nurses had close relationships. “It seemed to be a very busy friendly community,” he said.

Now the city’s hospitals have become large institutions and in Burnham’s view, “less personal.”

While that may be the case, Burnham continues to forge strong bonds with his colleagues. He has also left lasting impressions on many of his patients.

Lasting memories

Dave Durenberger, director of the Midwest Orthopaedic Research Foundation (MORF) at HCMC, said one of Burnham’s patients remembered him after 50 years had passed since the surgeon last treated him.

In the 1940s, Burnham, the father of three who now has four grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, left a family picnic to treat the patient, then a young boy, after the youth had fallen and broken his leg.

Five decades later, the patient, then in his 50s, sought treatment at HCMC and was thrilled to find out Burnham was still on staff.

“As you can imagine, it was an emotional reunion for the patient and the doctor as they had not seen each other since the now nearly 60-year-old man was just a young boy,” Durenberger said. “We’re truly blessed to have him on the staff … so that he may continue to have an impact even at the age of 93.”