Cowboy doctor embraces the Wild West
By Christine Boatwright
When he’s not riding his horse or his Harley among the tumbleweeds of southwest Colorado, Tom Burnison, M.D. ’80, commutes from his 25-acre ranch to Shiprock, New Mexico, to care for patients.
As chief of emergency medicine at Northern Navajo Medical Center, Burnison is living the cowboy life. In fact, when he rides his horse to his favorite remote hunting camp, he travels the same paths Butch Cassidy did when the infamous robber fled with his loot.
“We go on horseback down into the canyons. In terms of hunting from horseback, I haven’t had a horse you can just stay on. You can shoot from any horse — once. Not many will let you do it again once you pick yourself off the ground,” he said, laughing.
Burnison, a Michigan native, has treated patients from Florida’s panhandle to an island in the Pacific, but found his true home in the American Wild West.
Burnison was drafted into the U.S. Army in the late 1960s, and when he was discharged, he went straight into college and began thinking about becoming a doctor.
“I got into the idea that I could go to medical school,” Burnison said. “It fit with science but also with working with people.”
He wasn’t accepted into medical school on his first try, but knew he wanted to attend the UF College of Medicine. Burnison moved to Gainesville, bought a house, started taking post-graduation classes and began working in the psychiatric unit of Shands Hospital.
“I was putting my whole focus on the University of Florida. I thought, ‘I’m going to your school; I’m working in your hospital; you’ve gotta take me!’” Burnison said with a laugh.
Burnison found a home in the family medicine department and practiced in Navarre, Florida, after graduation. He also worked in the local emergency room to help make ends meet.
In 1998, Burnison’s wife saw an ad in the newspaper advertising a need for a doctor on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. She called and scheduled an interview for her husband saying, “If you love me, you’ll take me to Midway (Island).”
Midway Island — one of the most remote places in the world — had only 125 occupants. Burnison went from a full-time emergency medicine position in Florida to being on-call via cellphone while he snorkeled, fished and lived the island life.
“They had a little cemetery there for doctors. There were only three graves,” he said.
The Burnisons decided to move to a more heavily populated area as their three kids grew and looked for more opportunities. The family moved to Kauai, Hawaii, where Burnison practiced medicine on three Hawaiian Islands, flying 166 times in one year.
“I was averaging so many hours that it was tough,” he said. “Plus, I couldn’t surf. I never got to where I could surf OK, but I could (snow) ski. That’s when I decided to move to Colorado.”
While attending medical school, Burnison took an elective, monthlong family medicine rotation at Teec Nos Pos Navajo Reservation in Arizona. He fell in love with the West and returned many times to ski.
“It was like a home away from home. I always thought, if only I could stay more than a week. I loved Hawaii, but there’s no question that we should move,” Burnison said.
Burnison purchased the No Hope Goat Ranch and commutes to the Navajo reservation across state lines.
“The Navajo Nation has their culture, and they’re trying to preserve it. It’s a really tough life for them. The land we gave them is pretty, but, for making a living, it’s tough,” Burnison said. “A lot of the patients live in hogans (traditional Navajo housing), and there’s no running water, no electricity, no cellphone service. The roads are real sketchy. It provides a lot of problems when taking care of them.”
Burnison previously directed the reservation’s emergency medical services, and when an emergency arose, a vehicle may take more than an hour to bring the patient to the medical center. Due to the population’s low income and lack of jobs, Burnison commonly treats the physical side effects of alcohol and violence, as well as obesity issues, gallbladder disease and diabetes.
Burnison, an Old West cowboy at heart, enjoys learning about the Navajo culture and attending the cultural fairs and dances.
“I really like that atmosphere, the cowboy atmosphere — tumbleweeds rolling along. You’re in the Old West,” he said with a chuckle.