The family practitioner from Monroe is 91 and is still practicing
Story BY Ray Kisonas
Photos by TOM Hawley
Helen Swanson of Monroe is a healthy 70-year-old woman in the middle of her routine physical exam and the doctor is reviewing the results of her biochemical profile.
Her platelets are perfect, her iron is perfect, her vitamin D looks good and based on the results there is nothing to be alarmed about. However, like so many of us, her cholesterol is a bit high.
“It can come down,” but only because it’s not perfect, the doctor suggests.
“I can cut down on my cheese,” Mrs. Swanson responds.
Her doctor, John J. Burroughs, then listens to her heart with a stethoscope. Mrs. Swanson is familiar with the routine because he’s the same physician she’s had all seven decades of her life and the same family doctor who cared for her parents.
Doc Burroughs is 91 years old – 92 in September — and still practicing. His body is a little beat up after nine decades in this world, but his mind is as sharp as ever. To many around Monroe, he’s simply known as “The Legend.”
“Why would I go anywhere else?” Mrs. Swanson asked rhetorically. “He’s like family. He makes me feel very comfortable.”
Doc Burroughs has been practicing medicine in Monroe for 64 years and he is believed to be the oldest practicing physician in Michigan. He has delivered roughly 3,000 babies and has cared for generations of families in the area.
Doc comes from a time when an office visit was $3 and a house call was a whopping five bucks. He and his late father-in-law, Dr. Leonard Blakey, worked hard to keep the community healthy.
“We covered the whole county,” Doc Burroughs said. “I’ve enjoyed my job over the years, except for getting up in the middle of the night. I can’t say that was a lot of fun.”
Those days of running around to house calls in the middle of the night are long gone. Back then he was on call, visited nursing homes, delivered babies and, yes, routinely went on house visits, a once-common practice benefited only by certain generations of the population. His office used to be packed with up to 30 patients a day.
Sure, he’s slowed down, seeing only about eight to 12 patients a day. But he says nowadays he can offer something many of today’s physicians can’t.
“I put in just as many hours as ever,” he said while in his office on N. Monroe St. “Now I can give patients what they appreciate the most: time.”
A Monroe High School Class of 1944 graduate, Burroughs joined the Army Air Corps during World War II with the hopes of becoming a hotshot fighter pilot and joining the battle overseas. But the war was ending and the military had plenty of pilots, so he never left the States.
Upon his discharge, he returned to Monroe and completed his pre-med at the University of Detroit. He graduated medical school from the University of Marquette, Milwaukee, and in 1950 married the former Pat Blakey at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Monroe. They raised four children.
He joined his father-in-law’s office in 1957, but he actually began practicing three years before. Doc Burroughs delivered babies for 25 years and rarely would a night pass without a call. He performed surgical procedures — his favorite part of the job — and proudly excelled at stitching wounds that would leave minimal scarring or removing tonsils with little or no blood loss.
In December 2015, after 65 year of marriage, Mrs. Burroughs died. After she was gone, Doc kept working.
“I can’t sit alone and stare at four walls,” he said. “I’ve got to keep my mind active. I’ve got to keep busy. And this keeps me occupied.”
So he continues to do what he does best: practice medicine. But it hasn’t been easy. Although his mind is sharp, he calls his body an orthopedic wreck. During the past six years, he lost 80 pounds, giving up things like carbohydrates, salt and soup.
“You don’t see too many old fat people,” he said.
During his legendary career, all three of his offices have been on Monroe St. Like most family practitioners, he diagnoses and treats his patients or sends them to specialists if needed. He’s well-aware of the opioid epidemic in the community and will refuse to prescribe the powerful painkillers if he believes a patient is abusing them.
“I’ve lost a lot of patients that way,” he said.
Doc Burroughs, a grandfather and great-grandfather to many, refers to himself as practical and conservative. He believes in the courage of his convictions and plans to continue practicing until he “drops.” Both his parents lived until 98 when they simply “ran out of gas.” He still drives to work because he says it’s safer than walking.
On his desk in his office is a small television showing a Tigers afternoon ballgame. A framed photograph of Ronald Reagan oversees a cluster of pill bottles while soft music is playing over the speakers. Outside in the backyard, birds flutter constantly back and forth to the feeders while squirrels scurry up and down the trees. At the base of Doc’s desk is a large box of peanuts in the shells seemingly for his wildlife friends.
Doc Burroughs, “The Legend,” had just finished a light lunch of hard-boiled eggs, a slice of Swiss cheese and a small dab of peanut butter. He misses his corned beef and soup, but he’s sticking to his diet because the more he keeps his weight down, the longer he keeps going.
Although he probably would like to check on that baseball game or perhaps feed the squirrels, Doc Burroughs has work to do. And Mrs. Swanson is waiting in the next room.