Dr. Mary Burgeson: Blazing a trail

Traci Westcott/The Herald
Dr. Mary Burgeson poses for a portrait in her office at the Huntingburg Clinic on Tuesday. 


HUNTINGBURG — Girls didn’t grow up to become doctors when Mary Burgeson was a child. Socially acceptable jobs for women were limited to secretary, nurse, schoolteacher or mother.

But that didn’t stop her.

In 1982, Dr. Burgeson became the first female physician in Dubois County.

Late last month, she was named the 2019 Little Company of Mary Outstanding Physician Award recipient at Memorial Hospital and Health Care Center.

She doesn’t need validation. Still, the honor was special to her.

“I’m still kind of speechless about the whole thing,” said Burgeson, who grew up in Anderson. “It’s a big deal. I never expected it. It’s nice to be recognized after just being a physician all these years.”

The award is given annually to a physician on the hospital’s active staff who has been nominated through a hospital and communitywide nomination process, and chosen by a selection committee.

Based out of the hospital’s Huntingburg Clinic on East 22nd Street, Burgeson is a family physician who sees patients at her office, works with nursing home residents across the county and helps at Heart to Heart Hospice. She joined Memorial’s medical staff in 1984.

She is the only board-certified hospice and palliative care physician in the area, and she holds a leadership role on the hospital’s physician governance council.

But blazing a trail and getting to where she is today wasn’t easy.

She was a woman in a man’s world, fighting against prejudice and a mindset that devalued her solely because of her gender. Burgeson was the first woman in her residency program at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Evansville, and when she came to work in Southwestern Indiana, it was her patients — not her colleagues — that presented the biggest challenges.

She inherited a male doctor’s clients, and some left because they so firmly believed that women weren’t meant for the profession. She also recalled being approached at a grocery store and asked, “You’re a doctor, why are you grocery shopping?”

“The perception of what a doctor is and what a doctor does, I rattled it here,” Burgeson said. “They had doctors somewhere in some sort of glass castle, I guess. And I didn’t do that.”

More patients left when she became pregnant with twin boys and continued to practice while showing. But when she looks back on her long career, she doesn’t hold grudges.

“Everybody comes to acceptance at a different time,” Burgeson said. “It’s OK. But now, there’s none of that. So, it’s been a big change, and that’s good for medical care here. And it’s good that people have been more open.”

Her faith in God and the deep support of her husband, Rick, got her through the tough years. Rick never told her to give up and was never critical of her career. She knew this is where she was supposed to be.

Burgeson’s mother worked during World War II out of necessity. Her husband was killed in the war, and she needed to provide for their children. She went on to raise each of her daughters to have a backup plan in case they needed to take care of themselves and their families.

So, Burgeson initially began college at Indiana Central College intent on becoming a high school biology teacher. But teaching jobs were sparse at the time, and an academic advisor warned her how difficult finding work would be after she graduated.

Her sister — who is a nurse — took her on a tour of Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, and Burgeson was fascinated with the establishment’s laboratory.

She switched her major, graduated and became a medical technologist. But she knew she didn’t want to stare at brick walls and test tubes for the rest of her life. After further support from an advisor, she made the jump to medical school.

“He was a wonderful guy, because he believed that women could accomplish anything they wanted to,” Burgeson said of her advisor. “That was unusual back then, but he thought women could accomplish anything they wanted to.”

She later graduated from the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. Female students made up only 10 percent of her class, and she was often the only woman in the room.

The men wore coats and ties. The women were expected to wear “skirts, hose and heels,” Burgeson recalled. She traded tips for success with the other women in her class.

“My coping mechanism was mostly to be like wallpaper,” she said.

When she looks back on her career, she remembers the patients she’s helped. The people who have sent her thank-you cards and their well wishes over the years. The trust that they share.

Seeing them get better is her favorite part of the work.

“Whether it’s a little child growing up, or somebody getting better from pneumonia, or somebody coming through a stroke and being able to achieve a lot of independence that they thought they lost,” she said.

That’s the good stuff.

Though they shouldn’t face the same battles she did, Burgeson did offer a bit of wisdom for young, female physicians.

“My advice would be to just stick with it, be a good physician and things will work out,” she said. “People will recognize your value, and you’ll be respected,” she said.

Burgeson lives west of Huntingburg with her husband, Rick. The couple has three children; Carl, Eric and Paul. They have five grandchildren.

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