Sally Willard Burbank started life on a small dairy farm in northern Vermont. After graduating summa cum laude from Texas Christian University, she completed her medical training at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. She has practiced internal medicine for over twenty-five years.
She loves to read, write, bicycle, cook, and cater to the whims of her demanding but adorable silky terrier, Tiger Lily. She does not enjoy the six hours per week she commits to the Elliptical, but does it anyway to keep up with her love of all things chocolate.
Sally lives in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Nathan, and is the proud mother of two college students.
As a medical doctor, you obviously have enough to keep you busy, so what sparked your writing journey?
A classroom bully in fourth grade! As the plump new girl who sported hand-me-down clothes and geeky, blue cat glasses, I was picked on mercilessly. I completed my first novel about—surprise, surprise—a fat fourth grader with blue cat glasses. From fourth grade on, I have used writing to entertain, escape, and communicate messages, as only a well-told story can.
How does your faith play into your work?
As a doctor, I have faced considerable challenges to my faith: a forty-year-old mother dying of cancer, a senseless suicide, an anorectic who willfully dies of starvation, and a woman whose abusive husband eventually murders her. These troublesome cases force me to grapple with the age-old question of how a loving God can allow such suffering in children He claims to love.
My faith grounds me and allows me to face these tragedies with an eternal perspective. It spurs me to share the Gospel with those who are hurting. Without faith, the suffering I witness in my patients would seem capricious and cruel. My faith compels me to point my patients toward the true source of peace, joy, and purpose.
God sometimes sends us down an unexpected path in life—one that ultimately blesses us more than our original plan. Have you ever experienced such a “Divine Detour”?
I love to sing and planned on majoring in voice performance. Unfortunately, Indiana University smashed that dream with their letter stating, “We regret to inform you…” I remember throwing myself on my bed, tears pouring down my face. What now, God?
When I aced Organic Chemistry and Anatomy and Physiology—classes that some of my pre-med classmates bombed—I began to entertain thoughts of medical school. Remembering how devastated I was after receiving the music college rejection letter, my mother cautioned me not to get my hopes too high this time.
“Most doctors are rich, Jewish men whose fathers are doctors. (While this sounds like a bigoted stereotype, in 1977 northern Vermont, this was actually the case. Women doctors were rarer than moose sightings.)
“Besides,” she added, “You have to be downright brilliant to make it through medical school.”
Hmm. I wasn’t rich, male, Jewish, brilliant, or the child of a physician. Better let go of that dream and choose a more realistic career, I told myself. My college advisor, however, insisted that with my 4.0 GPA and decent MCAT scores, I would most likely gain acceptance into medical school. “Go for it,” he encouraged. “What have you got to lose?”
So I did, and here I am thirty years later with a book recanting my experiences as a middle-class, female, Christian, non-brilliant doctor, the daughter of a dairy farmer. Talk about Divine Detours!
Let’s talk about Patients I Will Never Forget (Clovercroft Publishing, June 2014). Please tell us about it.
Patients I Will Never Forget recounts the most memorable patients from my thirty-year career as a medical student, intern, and primary care doctor.
Inspiring, miraculous, and downright funny stories all grace the pages of this book. Lunatics, criminals, hypochondriacs, even a Cocker Spaniel. Over the years, I’ve doctored them all! Think All Creatures Great and Small, but with people, not critters.
Besides entertainment, what do you hope readers will take away from your book?
A lot of belly laughs! Many of the stories in Patients I Will Never Forget are hilarious, and I’ve illustrated the book with over 50 medical cartoons. You know what they say: “Laughter is the best medicine.”
In addition, readers will glean a better understanding of life as a modern-day doctor.
Readers will learn so much from my patients. Take Barbara, a wheelchair-bound, nearly blind, dialysis patient, who insisted on serving others until her dying breath. After reading Barbara’s story, readers will no longer acquiesce to their scarred pasts or physical limitations as an excuse to get out of doing the right thing. The miraculous healing of a leukemia patient, who begged God to let her live long enough to see her daughter graduate from high school, will leave readers awestruck. They will also develop a more positive attitude after reading about a food worker forced to chop onions for eight hours a day. But instead of complaining, Sue focused on the day she’d be promoted to cabbages!
God often uses our writing to teach us something. What did you learn (about life, faith, and/or even yourself) in the process of writing this book?
I gained greater appreciation for how truly blessed I am. Some of my patients endure scoundrels for husbands, drug addicts for kids, and terrible health conditions through no fault of their own. I no longer take my health or family blessings for granted. In fact, as crazy as it sounds, when I’m on the bathroom “throne,” I thank God for healthy kidneys!
I’ve also come to accept that caring for patients in their most vulnerable moments is not a job, but a calling. God has called me to be a beacon of light in a dark and fallen world. He is the Great Physician, but I’m called to be His hands.
A few fun questions…
When the words aren’t flowing—or when you want to celebrate if they are—what is your favorite comfort food and why?
Edy’s French Silk ice cream. Yummy and far cheaper than psychotherapy!
Your original plan was to pursue music. Please tell us a bit about your musical background.
I toured around Vermont singing in a contemporary Christian group called Revelation in the early 1980’s, and I currently sing in the Woodmont Baptist choir.
Since I couldn’t become a music major, I did the next best thing—I married one! My husband, Nathan Burbank, plays pipe organ at a huge Nashville church and is a member of a Beatles tribute band called “The WannaBeatles.” They were nominated for a Grammy award in 2012 (yes, I got to walk down the red carpet in LA!). Their last CD, called “We’re Still Rocking,” is fabulous! In fact, you can check out Nate’s latest song, “Bristol Lights,” on YouTube. He wrote the song and video as a tribute to his hometown of Bristol, Vermont, and I’m so proud of my sweetie!
If you were a song, what kind of song would you be?
Hard to beat Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 in C minor. I also love Debussy and Ravel—anything impressionistic.
In the story that is your life, are you the strong, female lead; the girl next door; the mysterious woman behind dark glasses; the super heroine; or the little girl trying to walk in high heels?
I always wanted to be the strong female lead, but in high school, every time I auditioned for the lead, I was lopped with the dullsville role of the housekeeper! I’d have to spout such insipid lines as, “Will that be all, Ma’am?” After four years of housekeeper-ish roles, I decided if I majored in Theater, I’d end up cleaning toilets for a living! But in my heart, I’m the female lead!
I’m a dog lover. Please tell us about your pets, if any, or your favorite pet as a child.
We own an ill-behaved, silky terrorist, excuse me, terrier named Tiger Lily. She has me trained to throw squeaky toys on command, and she is convinced the sole purpose of the white truck with blue trim that visits our mailbox every day is to deliver her a bone. She goes bonkers when she sees a mail truck. Or cat. Or squirrel.
Thank you, Sally! It’s nice to have you as a guest at DivineDetour.
Thanks for inviting me, Kathy! This was oodles of fun!
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For more information about Sally, visit her website or her blog.
To purchase Patients I Will Never Forget, logon to:
Author Note: If you are a Nashville resident, autographed copies of Patients I Will Never Forget are now available at Parnassus Books in Green Hills, Vanderbilt Barnes & Noble and Logos. In Franklin, TN it is sold at Grassland Market and Landmarks Books.
This was a fun interview. Nice to “meet” you, Sally. And as always, Kathy, great post.
Wonderful, insightful interview, Kathy and Sally. And what fun to get to know Sally better!
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