UNC Health Talk

A Legacy of Care

By Jamie Williams, jamie.williams@unchealth.unc.edu

In the late 1960s, when Frederick Burroughs, MD, opened his practice in Southeast Raleigh, he was the first Board Eligible African-American pediatrician in Wake County. It’s a distinction he’s proud of, but it doesn’t come close to defining his career in medicine.

His full impact can be seen in the former patients who drove great distances so that their own children could be cared for by him. It can be heard in the way the students he trained as an adjunct professor at the UNC School of Medicine speak of him, even decades later.

“Let’s not make this all touchy feely. He was truly an extraordinary physician; he wanted his patients to receive great care and he did everything he could to make sure that occurred,” said Alan Stiles, MD, Brewer Distinguished Professor at UNC School of Medicine and UNC Health Care’s Vice President for Network Development and System Affiliation. In the late 1970s, he was one of many UNC medical students and residents mentored by Burroughs at his Raleigh practice.

So, yes, Burroughs was the first African-American pediatrician in Raleigh. But for several decades, he was also one of the best and most respected physicians in the Triangle and across the state.

Delays and Determination:

Born and raised in New Jersey, Burroughs’ journey to North Carolina was marked by promises made and kept. Dreams deferred and then willed to fruition.

He recalls an early obstacle with a clarity that belies the fact it occurred nearly 70 years ago.

“It was my senior year of high school, two days after Christmas, and our house burned down,” Burroughs said. “I remember my dad looking at me and saying ‘Son, there goes your college.’”

Burroughs began working odd jobs, saving money. He became involved with his church’s youth program, traveling the state speaking to young people. He says that experience solidified his desire to go into pediatrics.

After two years, he went back to his father, with a little money, and asked if he could apply for college.

At Hampton University, Burroughs majored in Chemistry and minored in Biology. He met his wife, “the smartest thing in our class.”

Upon graduation, he was drafted into active duty with the Army. Nearing the end of his required term of service, Burroughs applied and was accepted to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, one of the most prominent medical schools for African-American students. But, medical school would have to wait.

With marriage approaching, Burroughs chose to extend his military service and soon after marrying his wife was deployed to Germany. His wife joined him there and taught in a school for military children.During those three years in Germany, Burroughs was guided by a promise he made before he left for duty.

“When I asked for my wife’s hand in marriage, I looked at my future father-in-law and I promised him that as soon as I got out of the service I would go to medical school and I would become a doctor,” Burroughs said.

After more than six years in the Army, Burroughs completed his service and was ready to come home to make good on his promise. He asked Meharry to pull his previous application and reconsider it. He was accepted.

“I got out of the service in May and was down in Tennessee in August,” Burroughs said. “I’d spent nearly seven years out of school doing nothing related to my major, nothing academic. I caught the Devil for that.”

He struggled that first year to get back into the routines of studying. He said he felt lost in classes with younger students fresh out of college.

He was allowed to repeat his first year. And, reinvigorated, he sailed through.

“At graduation, my father-in-law looked at me, shook my hand and said ‘You always wanted to be a doctor, now look at you,’” Burroughs said. “That meant the world to me.”

Building a Practice in Raleigh:

Burroughs’ wife had grown up in Raleigh and the two made frequent trips from Nashville while Burroughs studied at Meharry. She introduced him to several physicians in the area and helped him to build a network.

“When I finished my residency, I had other offers, but I knew that there was a need for a pediatrician in Raleigh,” Burroughs said.

Burroughs and his family moved to Raleigh in 1969.

Though Burroughs points out that his practice was integrated from the start, Raleigh was still experiencing the lingering effects of segregation.

“When I got here there were still separate waiting rooms in most white physicians’ offices in Raleigh,” Burroughs said. “The signs were still up.”

At the outset, the doctors he had met in previous trips helped funnel patients to him and his practice which was located on Person St. in Southeast Raleigh.

“The first day I opened my practice, I think that I saw one patient,” Burroughs said. “The next day, maybe it was two. But by the end of the first month, I was probably treating ten or 15 patients a day.”

He soon had his hands full.

“At one point I got so busy that I had to put out a notice that I would only take new patients if they were under 12 years old,” Burroughs said. “I felt that it was important for me to establish a rapport with the patient and the family and have a good sense of them before they got on into their teenage years.”

Generations of Patients:

When Burroughs began serving patients, he said he never cared where they came from or how much money they had. He just wanted them to be cared for properly.

“I had patients who would come from the eastern part of the state and they would bring me venison, or they would bring me vegetables,” he said. “If people couldn’t get to me, I would occasionally make house calls. There were a lot of things that wouldn’t necessarily happen now, but back then, that was just medicine.”

As time went on, Burroughs said he watched his original patients grow up and have children of their own. He smiled recounting stories of patients traveling across the state, and sometimes across the country to bring their children to see him.

“I had a significant number of patients who would drive from South Carolina, Richmond, even Asheville,” Burroughs said. “I had a family who moved from Raleigh to upstate New York, but the mother would call religiously each year to set an appointment for her kids when they were coming back to Raleigh to visit family.”

Changing the landscape:

As Burroughs was building his own successful practice, he was also working to recruit other African-American physicians to Raleigh, and lobbying to make it easier for them to practice.

In the late 1930s, the state of North Carolina passed the Murphy Act, which provided African-American students “an expense differential” in the form of a loan if they enrolled in an out-of-state university for graduate programs not provided by the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. For decades following, this law provided funding for young African-American students to receive their medical education at Meharry or Howard University, then the closest medical schools for African-American students from North Carolina. Many Southern states had similar regulations.

Though UNC School of Medicine accepted its first African-American student in 1951, many continued to study at Meharry because of the financial assistance provided through the Murphy Act. As a condition of receiving this support, young African-American physicians returning to North Carolina were required to practice in rural, underserved areas, or to pay back their loan. Burroughs said he knew of several classmates from Meharry who desired to come back to the state, but wanted to practice in the state’s more urban areas. After seeing these talented young doctors choosing not to return to North Carolina, Burroughs petitioned the state’s Medical Care Commission to have these rules relaxed and Raleigh declared a “high need area” for African-American physicians.

This move allowed Burroughs to recruit several physicians to found Sunnybrook Medical Center, a standalone practice with physicians offering expertise in several specialties.

“African-American patients in Raleigh had never had an entity that they could visit with pride,” Burroughs said. “Sunnybrook was a state-of-the-art facility, with physicians that they could call their own.”

The facility garnered national attention and was even mentioned in an article in Jet Magazine, Burroughs said. Sunnybrook was open for 27 years before the group sold the facility to Wake County.

In 1977, Burroughs joined the Rex Hospital medical staff, becoming the hospital’s first African-American physician. Early in his time there, Burroughs had a heated interaction with two security guards. Burroughs recalls that he was on his way to attend a cesarean section when the guards stopped him, asking to see identification to prove he was, in fact, a doctor. Two nurses who worked with Burroughs witnessed the encounter and relayed the story to Rex’s CEO.

“The CEO called a little later that day to let me know that he had investigated the incident and fired those security guards. He told me that type of thing was not going to happen at Rex. That really broke the ice. It felt great knowing I had support from the top of the company,” Burroughs said.

Burroughs maintained his affiliation with Rex throughout his career.

Teaching by example:

During his early years in private practice, Burroughs admitted most of his patients at WakeMed, where UNC School of Medicine students and residents performed clinical rotations. Burroughs said that he enjoyed interacting with the students and was soon approached with the opportunity to become an adjunct professor at the School of Medicine. He spent 15 years in this role, making an impact on countless future pediatricians, including many current leaders at the UNC School of Medicine. Julie Byerley, MD, Vice Dean for Education, learned from Burroughs during her residency at UNC.

“He showed us the way that doctors should build trust with families,” Byerley said. “Every one of his patients felt like he was there to care just for them.”

Alan Stiles, MD said he remembers working closely with Burroughs as both a medical student and a resident.

“He was definitely demanding, but never domineering,” Stiles remembers. “As a student, you appreciated the fact that if he was going to ask you to do things he wasn’t going to just leave you on your own, he’d be there to help.”

In addition to medical school students and residents, Burroughs worked with nursing students.

“The nursing school was always pushing me to take more students because the ones I worked with always scored so highly on the pediatric portions of the board exams,” Burroughs said, laughing.

His impact went well beyond improved test scores, though. Stiles said that though it was never mentioned, Burroughs’ dedication to caring for all patients, regardless of race or wealth, made an impact on Stiles and his classmates.

“We rotated with several physicians and saw a lot of practices, and I’m quite sure that if Fred had chosen to, he could have practiced in a very different way, but he didn’t. We all knew that as trainees. And we all admired him for it,” Stiles said.

Legacy of Care:

Burroughs, now 85, officially retired in 2011 and said he still can’t go anywhere in the Triangle without seeing former patients.

The way he cared for those patients still inspires Stiles.

“What really sticks with me even today was the respect and compassion that he showed his patients,” Stiles said.

There is a large network of UNC School of Medicine graduates who saw that example.

“In 2003, the North Carolina Pediatric Society honored me with the Tayloe Award for Outstanding Community Service. At the presentation, they asked the people in the room to stand up if they had an interaction with me or were precepted by me,” Burroughs said. “I bet two-thirds of the people in the room stood up. It was amazing.”

This year, Burroughs was honored with a Living Legend Award, presented by the UNC School of Medicine community at the Zolicoffer-Merrimon Banquet, but he’s humble when asked to consider his legacy.

“I liked what I was doing while I was doing it,” Burroughs said simply.