Coastal Pediatrics closes doors

Stephen Burns, founding physician of Coastal Pediatrics, stands in his practice holding a belt made from the snake he killed for two Oregonians who sparked his interest in moving to the Oregon coast in the 1970s. (Photo by Stephanie Blair)

NEWPORT — Stephen Burns opened the first pediatric private practice between Astoria and Coos Bay in 1979. On Jan. 1, his Newport practice, Coastal Pediatrics, closed its doors permanently and Burns retired.

Over the past 40 years, Burns has treated two or three generations of the same families while continuing to serve the same community.

“I’m well into the third generation. That is cool beyond words, it is a blessing beyond words,” said Burns. “There’s no second guessing on the part of the patient, they know exactly what they’re getting because their mother and their grandmother told them so … It’s wonderful. I feel sad for doctors that won’t ever get to experience that.”

But that experience was a long time coming, and took an expected sequence of events to occur.

Burns grew up in the south and attended school at the University of Southern Florida, specifically the College of Medicine in Tampa. It was while he was living in Saint Petersburg, just outside of Tampa, that he met a couple of Oregonians from Sweet Home.

“They had a rattlesnake in their flower bed, and I helped them kill it because they had never killed a rattlesnake before,” said Burns. “And that’s when I found out that there are no poisonous snakes on the Oregon coast.”

That knowledge sparked an interest for Burns. After graduating chief resident in pediatrics, Burns began looking on the west coast for where he would like to settle. He picked out Newport as where he would like to retire.

“I was going north, and I was camping at Agate Beach, and I said ‘well, you know, if I’m gonna retire, I could just live here,’” said Burns. “So, you know, it worked out: I’m going to retire here.”

Other things that drew him to Oregon besides the lack of poisonous snakes: the billboard law, the bottle bill and natural air conditioning. But there were other problems along the Oregon coast in the late ‘70s — back before a number of vaccines we have today, including those which guard against Hepatitis A and B, HIB and HPV.

“Back then, they had lots of people dying — this (area between Florence, Eddyville and Tillamook) was called ‘death’s triangle’ by the medical school … because of all the meningitis and sepsis,” said Burns. “Back then, we’d do at least one and a half, usually two, spinal taps a week every week — until these vaccines took effect 15, 20 years later.”

Burns kept count, and in his first 15 years running Coastal Pediatrics, he saved 211 children through the care that he provided.

“After that, the vaccines started to kick in and after that, gosh, I haven’t done a spinal tap in years,” said Burns. “Which is nice, to give up spinal taps.”

Burns also commented that, while the challenges were “more imperative” back then, things aren’t smooth sailing now — the challenges are just different.

“The children being born haven’t changed though. Still need to attend a lot of births and be available to resuscitate newborns — that hasn’t changed at all,” said Burns.

In addition, medicine is changing, which is a major factor in what’s to come after Burns retires.

What’s next

Despite not having been the sole physician at his practice since the early ‘80s, Coastal Pediatrics shut down, which Burns said was “a mind twist, to come build something and have its existence, and then the evolution of medicine makes it archaic.”

“(Samaritan) offered all of us a job and they offered to let us continue our practice but we’ve evolved past the independent practitioner. We all work in teams now,” said Burns. “The role of the patient has changed. We’re changing from individual medicine, focused on individuals, to medicine focused on populations. I don’t enjoy population medicine as much.”

Fellow physician at the practice, Sean Rash, and physician’s assistant Linell Woods will both be making the transition into the Newport Samaritan hospital to continue their work, but it was the right time for Burns to step back.

“I’ve never had a boss, either, so that’d be rude after all of these years,” Burns added with a laugh.

Instead, he has a lengthy to-do list for himself in retired life.

“I’m gonna borrow a tractor and plant some alfalfa on a river bank,” began Burns.

Also on his list, building a cabin in the woods, riding motorcycles with his wife, hunting elk with one of his sons and flying airplanes with the other, visiting distant family and fishing for crab with a friend.

“And I’m not moving away,” concluded Burns. “Because I love it here … I love the people here. I love the climate and the typography: to live on a cliff, in a forest, on the edge of the ocean: wow.”

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