|« Footprints on the Sands of Time||What I'd Tweet For »|
Dr. Margaret Burns answered an ad I placed in the Asheville, NC, Citizen-Times while I was researching a novel set in the mid 20th century at a private psychiatric facility. I remember the first time I heard her voice; it was low-pitched and direct (blunt almost) while at the same time curious in a kind way. Southern mountain all the way.
In her mid-eighties, Dr. Burns was still seeing an occasional patient and worried a bit about outliving her money. She was eager to share with me her recollections of the practice of psychiatry all those years ago. She felt Highland Hospital (affiliated with Duke University) had generally been a healing place. To my great surprise, I learned that the hospital?s director and at least half of its medical staff were female.
We spoke on the phone several times before I went to Asheville to meet her. Only once did we succeed in a proper interview, tape recorded in a formal setting. The rest was so much better?conversations in the car while we looked for her missing (and never found) kitty, more conversations in her lovely living room on Kimberley Avenue, visits with her friend Anne Sagberg, also a psychiatrist; supper with her housemate, John Devine; lunch at a local restaurant. She was eager to talk and generous in her sharing.
By today?s standards, Highland Hospital?s routine insulin and electric shock therapy sounded almost barbaric. But other parts sounded more like a spa?a hair dresser?s shop, food fresh from a farm staffed by the hospital?s male patients, and lots of exercise. The hospital?s founder had been insistent that patients hike the grounds, and the physical labor the men performed on the farm was the first real work many of them had ever done, she said. When the director died, Duke took over the hospital, and Dr. Burns moved into town and began a private practice. She deplored the abandonment of talk therapy in the advent of psychotropic drugs. Even if they?re taking medication, people need to talk, she insisted.
Over several visits, I learned plenty to give texture to the novel I was writing. Just as importantly, I learned the amazing story of Margaret Virginia Burns. This is what she said:
Sometime around 1916, her mother gave birth to her fourth child, a little boy, Robert. (The Burns were of Scottish ancestry, you may have ascertained. The other Robert Burns' portrait hung over her mantel.) Several months later, the infant died, and it was clear her mother was not doing well either. It was probably some infection brought about by the birth, Dr. Burns said, but in those days, male doctors did not perform internal examinations of women. (Even if they were dying? I asked. Even if they were dying, she said.) Various remedies were suggested, but it was clear that Mrs. Burns was getting worse. Her husband, with three young children to care for, was desperate.
Then, someone told him about a woman doctor, Louise Ingersoll, who had been a missionary abroad, Siberia perhaps. She examined Mrs. Burns as no one else had and determined that she had a massive infection. (Penicillin would not be discovered until 1928.) Margaret remembered the doctor arriving at their home with her satchel and many feet of rubber tubing. Her treatment was to irrigate her patient?s female organs with some healing solution. Margaret never knew what it was, but she was forever grateful that her mother?s life had been saved. She never wavered about her own determination to become a doctor, and as a teenager she worked for Dr. Ingersoll after school. Then she went to Duke University and its new medical school. Initially, she was a pediatrician.
When World War II broke out, she went North. Somewhere along the way, she contracted tuberculosis. She admitted that she?d thought she was invulnerable to disease and gotten tested later than she should have. It cost her three years of her life and disfiguring lung surgery that severely reduced her breathing capacity. By the time we met, she carried an oxygen pack and used it on the treadmill where she exercised.
?I learned a lot about people that I wouldn?t have if I hadn?t had tuberculosis,? she told a writer a few years ago. She worked for while as an administrator in Georgia, then she returned to Asheville and worked in a children?s hospital again.
But something stirred her spirit, and she decided to study psychiatry. She served her residency in a Baptist hospital where she was required to ask new admissions if they had been saved. While she didn?t believe that was relevant, she persisted and returned after she passed her residency to Asheville and to Highland Hospital.
We talked about religion and psychiatry, how ritual compulsions were often the mark of mental illness. On the other hand, Dr. Burns thought religion and spirituality could be a good thing for the mentally ill. She was Presbyterian, but her beliefs were not orthodox.
Dr. Burns died June 30, a day short of her 99th birthday. She had expected she would weather this latest illness, as she had weathered so many, but, sadly, it was not to be. There will be a memorial Saturday, August 6, at Grace Covenant Presbyterian church in Asheville. Attendees will celebrate a remarkable life. A memorial fund is being set up at Duke?s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health where donations are being matched.
She never told me about the prison inmates she treated or the black patients she saw before Jim Crow ended, but it never occurred to me to ask. Her modesty was genuine. John Devine, whose efforts enabled her to remain in her home until her final illness, says she saved his life and that several people have told him since her death that she saved theirs, too.
Perhaps that?s because she continued Dr. Ingersoll?s tradition of examining what others refused to look at. And she wasn?t afraid to listen while her patients talked about it.