Doctor publishes first book of bedside tales

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Sally Willard Burbank, MD, originally from Derby, has published her first book.  Photo by Natalie Hormilla
Sally Willard Burbank, MD, originally from Derby, has published her first book. Photo by Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle September 3, 2014

Patients I Will Never Forget, by Sally Willard Burbank. 282 pages. Paperback. Published by Clovercroft Publishing. $14.99. 

by Natalie Hormilla

Sally Willard Burbank, MD, remembers writing her first book when she was in fourth grade.

“It was about a girl named Aggie who was fat, picked on, and it was definitely autobiographical,” Dr. Burbank said. She wrote the novel shortly after her family moved from Derby to Montpelier, where she didn’t really fit in.

After college, she went to the University of Vermont for medical school. It was there that she began compiling the stories that would both chronicle her medical career and reflect the crazy cross-section of people one doctor can encounter over time.

Dr. Burbank changed the names of everyone in each story, which was part of the long process of tracking down 25 years of patients. Some stories weren’t published because the patients couldn’t be found.

Most people have a circle of friends of a certain type. “But when you’re a physician, you see all kinds of people, because everybody gets sick,” Dr. Burbank said.

Patients I Will Never Forget is Dr. Burbank’s first published book, a collection of career stories. The format is somewhat chronological. It starts with the “good-for-nothing stupid doll” she received one Christmas as a six-year-old that led her family to believe she was destined for a career in science. From there, the stories cover all the bases: the good, bad, ugly, funny, terrifying, and almost totally unbelievable.

There was the time a new patient walked in on her pumping milk for her baby at her desk (he never came back). And the time she learned the importance of checking a patient’s name on their wristband — not just the chart — before drawing their blood.

One of the funniest stories is from medical school. In “The Most Popular Doctor in Town,” Dr. Burbank and her classmates practice physical exam skills for a gynecological check-up, on women hired by the school.

“My friend, Jeremy, wanted to become an Ob-Gyn, and he knew a gentle but thorough pelvic exam was critical to his success. Intent on perfecting his skills, he repeated the exam several times.

Just when he thought he’d mastered it, his patient cooed, ‘Oooo, honey, keep that up, and I’m gonna have to bring you home with me.’

He yanked his hands away as though her genitals were made of sulfuric acid. His face flushed redder than the body parts he’d been examining….

‘If you ever decide this doctoring thing ain’t your cup of tea, you’d make a marvelous gigolo.’”

The woman was also a comedian.

Several stories may be harder to swallow.

In at least two stories, God tells Dr. Burbank what’s wrong with her patient. For one, the problem is she’s possessed by demons. For another, the problem is bulimia. In both cases, God speaks to Dr. Burbank, so the patient gets the help she probably wouldn’t have received otherwise.

In the context of this book, those moments of divine intervention don’t seem out of place. Dr. Burbank’s Christian mindset is present throughout.

In another story, Dr. Burbank is a witness to what she called “a bonafide miracle.”

In “Not Until She Graduates,” she tells the tale of a nice woman, Patricia, who developed acute leukemia. Patricia tells Dr. Burbank that she just wants to live until her 15-year-old daughter graduates from high school. One night, complications lead to a coma.

Dr. Burbank had this cartooned commissioned for her book.  Image courtesy of Sally Willard Burbank
Dr. Burbank had this cartooned commissioned for her book. Image courtesy of Sally Willard Burbank

“Things looked so hopeless the hematologist called in her family to say their final goodbyes. ‘She won’t survive the night,’ he told them sadly. A ‘do not resuscitate’ order was added to her chart in defeat.”

Dr. Burbank prayed for the woman and said goodbye.

Miraculously, Patricia survived the night. Within days, she was back to her normal self.

In the story, Patricia tells Dr. Burbank that while she was comatose, Jesus appeared to her in a translucent white robe and told her that he would heal her long enough to see her daughter graduate from high school.

“And she was leukemia-free for three years with no treatment,” Dr. Burbank said in her interview.

“My first thought is, could this be a hallucination? Or morphine?” she said about the experience. “It could be Jesus, but time will tell.”

The story continues:

“Within three months of Julie starting college, Patricia’s leukemia returned with a vengeance, and this time nothing stopped it.”

Dr. Burbank, who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her musician husband, has plenty more stories waiting to be published.

“This is just the first volume. I could write three more of stories that are just unbelievable,” she said.

“That’s the neat thing of being a doctor, you get so much fodder.”

Dr. Burbank is currently editing two novels she’s already written and plans to publish. Both novels are mysteries with female doctors as the protagonists.

She fits in time to write in the morning, late at night, on weekends, and on days off.

“I don’t watch TV,” she said. “I see TV as a big time waster.”

And she doesn’t play golf, she added.

The most time consuming part of her work on this first book was tracking down all the cartoons sprinkled throughout the pages. She scanned through thousands of medical cartoons to find images that fit her stories, and she had five commissioned.

So far, the book is selling well in uniform and medical supply stores, she said. She pictures the book being in waiting rooms, or airports, places where people can read short stories.

Patients I’ll Never Forget came out in June, and is available locally at Wider Than the Sky in Newport, the North Country Hospital gift shop, the Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick, and the Boxcar & Caboose in St. Johnsbury.

contact Natalie Hormilla at [email protected]

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