As I was building this new site, moving content over from Rebel.MD, I heard about the death of my friend and mentor Dr. Burtt Richardson. He got a kick out of my adventures, many opinions and ambitions, and I am sad not to be able to share this site with him. He would have laughed.
I met Burtt and his wife Gladys during my pediatric residency in Maine. Burtt was a rural pediatrician, and my program sent interns out to rural sites for one month rotations. Burtt was entirely committed to my full education on rural pediatrics.
My rural month landed in the winter. Winthrop, Maine is only an hour away from Portland, but nearly impossible to drive daily during the winter months. This didn’t deter Burtt, he just gave me his home.
During my month, he and Gladys moved out of their home next door to the practice, and lived in their “camp” a few miles away. Let that sink in for a minute, because it’s only now that I’m an attending that I realize how remarkable this was. He was so committed to the pediatric education of a complete stranger, that he moved out of his own home to make it happen.
He taught me how to use his woodstove, reminding me during the workday to run over and put a log in the fire so the house would be warm when we finished seeing patients. Every morning, he, his lawyer friend and the lawyer’s blind dog would meet me for an early run. It was dark in the mornings, so he brought me reflective gear. We talked a lot during those runs. I also got terribly frostbit on my ears and nose, so busy chatting I didn’t realize how cold it was.
On the issue of politics, Burtt and I were as opposite as you could imagine. I’m incredibly grateful we met in a time when that was okay. We’d run and talk and learn. Burtt chuckled that we were such political opposites that we’d both end out with our own FBI files, depending on the political whims of the day and what ideas were deemed dangerous at the time.
Burtt didn’t have an “after-hours” service answering calls, the calls came right to his home. His home phone would ring through to his camp, but for night calls he let me answer the phone first…and then I’d hear him pick up and listen in on the advice I gave. Remarkably, I only answered a handful of after-hours calls that whole month. He shrugged, “I start educating families from the beginning, and they nearly never need to call me at night.”
Once, he took Ryan and I out to a community play, grinning as he showed me The Cell Phone, housed in a briefcase. “If we’re really lucky, you’ll get a page and have to leave the play to call back on The Cell Phone!”. Again, he was fully committed to giving me the full experience of a rural pediatrician.
Despite all I learned about pediatrics and being a pediatrician during that month, my favorite and most lasting memory came the following summer when Burtt took us to climb Katahdin. Ryan and I had hiked and kayaked the coast of Maine extensively my intern year in Maine, and as Midwesterners, were in love with the ocean. We couldn’t grasp why Burtt was so keen on Katahdin. Why go inland to hike a trail when the ocean was so gorgeous? But Burtt kept insisting. He made all the campground reservations and trail plans, so we went.
And he was right. Katahdin was amazing. It’s a 6 mile hike up, gaining nearly a mile in elevation. The dizzying heights, precipitous climbs aided by iron pegs driven into sheer rock, and uncertain weather…the whole experience was mind-boggling. Ryan and I got within 1/2 mile of the peak, and had to turn back as snow and high winds made the trek too dangerous.
That night, Burtt made us a dinner to soothe our disappointment at not making the peak, a dinner that very likely changed the course of our lives and planted the Airstreaming seed. To put Burtt’s dinner in perspective, Ryan and I made dinner the night before as we set up camp, a very Midwest camping dinner of chicken chili, cornbread, and Coke. That night inside the tent, in one of the most remote places in America, as the wind whipped and the rain beat down, Burtt pulled out white wine, caviar, and crackers…followed by linguini with white clam sauce…finished with Maine wild blueberries and fresh cream. And he did it like it was completely normal.
Now Ryan and I had camped our entire marriage. Our honeymoon after my first year of med school was 10 weeks on the road out West with a tent and $3,000. Over the years, we’d camped from Maine to Alaska. We camped the first month of pediatric internship waiting to move into our home. Eating Burtt’s dinner, I realized we’d been doing it all wrong. There was no going back to chicken chili.
The next morning, we woke to break camp and the sun was shining. Because we were in our twenties, Ryan and I HAD to try climbing it again. Burtt, at 67, hiked halfway with us and sat at Chimney Pond with his O’Douls. (He was incredulous that Ryan and I packed Cokes to drink on the hike, and predicted that soda companies would be sued for causing obesity and other health issues. We laughed at the time, but turns out he was right. Instead, he chose beer, a drink that…in his words…had stood the test of time for thousands of years). That morning, we beat the weather and made it to the peak.
The next year, our daughter was born, and it was 15 years until we could attempt Katahdin again. If possible, it was even more breathtaking the next time around.
It was so epic, that we returned to climb it again 3 years later, this past summer, and I determined that I’m officially old. The kids went on ahead and beat me to the peak. I have no idea how Burtt climbed it in his 60s, but I’m forever thankful he did.
He introduced us to a hike that is now part of my kids’ life narrative and accomplishments. He taught us to up our food game to the point of hilarity, especially when camping. My parents can thank Burtt for inspiring our Leelanau camping weekends. And for better or worse, we now choose beer over pop.
Cheers Burtt. Thanks for your friendship and legacy in our lives.