Remembering Michael G. Burke, MD

October 7, 2019

Following the death of Michael G. Burke, MD, his long-time collaborator Marian Freedman and other colleagues shared their rememberances of Dr. Burke and the impact he had on pediatrics. 

For more than 20 years, Michael and I prepared the monthly Journal Club together; he selected the studies, I wrote the summaries, and he prepared the commentaries. Month after month, year after year, we exchanged e-mails about these matters, meeting in person only once in all that time. Although he was himself a good writer, Michael always sought out my opinion when he had doubts about what he had written, respected any changes I suggested, and lavishly praised the abstracts I wrote. In short, he was my ideal professional partner.

Over time, we began exchanging information about our personal lives, including recommendations on travel companies, books, and even a massive snow shovel (the Big Scoop), which he purchased from Amazon after I raved about it. Mostly we wrote about our families-he was a devoted father to 3 daughters-and, as the years passed, so did the Burke family milestones, including college graduations and, most recently, a wedding. Michael obviously adored his wife, Missy, whom he found a way to mention in most of his e-mails.

Once they had an empty nest, Michael and Missy began traveling more, sometimes to faraway places, and while Michael reported on these adventures in glowing terms, I loved how he continued to appreciate life’s small pleasures. In one of his last e-mails, for example, he commented on how nice it was to spend a quiet weekend morning writing his commentaries while sitting in his screened-in porch-“my favorite place in the house and maybe in the whole world,” as he put it-and he often ended his communications with a simple “Life is good.”

Sadly, life is not as good without you in it, Michael. I will miss you.

Michael’s death leaves a huge hole in the lives of so many. I was one of the many privileged to have been touched by his wisdom, grace, and generosity. 

-Jane A. Oski, MD, MPH

Former EAB member, Contemporary Pediatrics

It is with great sadness and a profound sense of loss that we must announce the death of Michael Burke, MD, a beloved clinician, teacher, mentor, and faculty member here at Johns Hopkins and Chair of Pediatrics at St. Agnes Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland.

Dr. Burke received his MD from Syracuse University in 1983, and in 1986 he completed a residency in Pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. He served as Chair of Pediatrics at St. Agnes Hospital since 1992 and was associate professor of Pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Those of us who knew and treasured Michael know there is no way to fully sum up what an incredible clinician, teacher, and human being he was. He was chosen by the Pediatric residents to be the graduation speaker and gave a wonderful talk just a few weeks ago. He cared deeply for the people around him and won multiple teaching awards.

We wish to extend sincere condolences to his wife, Missy, and his 3 daughters and extended family.

-Tina L. Cheng, MD, MPH

Director, Department of Pediatrics

Given Foundation Professor of Pediatrics, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Pediatrician-in-Chief, Johns Hopkins Children’s Center

Baltimore, Maryland

Michael was an extraordinary doctor, friend, colleague, human being! More than 20 years ago, Mike ran an idea by me. In time, with a small cadre, we created the Reach Out And Read (ROAR) program, the first hospital-based pediatric literacy program in the state of Maryland, winning Mayoral and Gubernatorial awards. In a few short years, nearly 30,000 new and gently used books were distributed to children in the Peds Clinic [at St. Agnes Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland]. This gentle soul modeled a holistic approach to healthcare long before its time. His clinical expertise, kindness, gentle spirit, warmth, humor, and so much more made a lasting impact for generations to come. What an honor and privilege to serve beside him! He is now serving as one of God’s cherished Angels!

Kathy Smith

Assistant Secretary of State

State of Maryland

During the last 2 weeks, many of us are still struggling with the shocking news of Dr. Burke’s sudden death but remembering him as a gentle, soft-spoken leader who was a kind-hearted pediatrician, caring and supportive to the Pediatric staff. I’m sure it has been hard at St Agnes and for some even painful, such as his secretaries not seeing his beaming smile and hearing that friendly “Hello!”

In honor for his work and implementation of the Reach Out And Read (ROAR) program at the hospital, which won the Mayoral and Gubernatorial awards and that distributed nearly 30,000 books to the children in the Peds clinic, a book has been selected to be dedicated in his memory and will be given to his family. The ROAR team has chosen The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein. Dr. Burke’s family will enjoy this story of unselfish love and see him as a perfect example, as well as read the many thoughts written in a few pages from the Pediatric office and medical staff, colleagues, and retired personnel who respected and loved him.

We will certainly miss him deeply and be reminded of him through the things he loved dearly: We’ll see him looking up through the eyes of children. From the pages of his favorite children’s books. In smiles from those we gave our smiles to as gifts, as we’ve learned from him.

Thank you, Michael, for the many blessings you shared!

Christine Vias-Plummer

Former Child Life Specialist and friend

St. Agnes Hospital

Dr. Burke was a kind, generous, compassionate man who cared deeply and was passionate in his desire to improve the lives of all children. One example of his generous and caring nature was the establishment of the Reach Out And Read (ROAR) program at St. Agnes Hospital. Dr. Burke saw an opportunity to encourage the development of children’s reading skills by providing a free book to a child as part of the doctor visit. He gathered a team of St. Agnes Hospital staff, inspired them with his vision, and ROAR was off and running. Michael Burke was an amazing man, and I feel lucky to have worked with him. An inspiration to all!

Barbara Burns

University of Maryland School of Medicine

I met Mike in 1986 as a medical student on my first outpatient pediatric rotation at [the former] Francis Scott Key Medical Center, Baltimore, Maryland. He couldn’t have been that much older than I. What struck me was how kind and thoughtful he was. He never failed to send me a note when he saw a paper I wrote or heard about something I had done. I so valued these bits of contact from him. I will miss him.

William T. Zempsky, MD, MPH

Head, Division of Pain and Palliative Medicine

Connecticut Children's Medical Center

Professor of Pediatrics and Nursing

University of Connecticut

Storrs, Connecticut

Michael Burke was a gentle giant. His humble and soft-spoken manner belied his tremendous impact on the field of Pediatrics and the world beyond, from Baltimore to Haiti. He inspired all of us who were fortunate to work with him by modeling kindness, compassion, service, and joy. We honor Michael’s memory by striving to live and practice according to these values.

Evelyn Cohen Reis, MD

UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

(formerly of Johns Hopkins University/St. Agnes Hospital, Baltimore, Maryland)

Dr. Burke will be greatly missed and remembered for so many great qualities. He was truly inspirational and enthused the spirit of those who were blessed to know him. I had the pleasure of working with him for almost 4 years when I served as the director of the St. Agnes Pediatric Emergency Medicine department. Dr. Burke was the best boss/ department head with whom I’ve worked.

Dr. Burke was and remains a true hero to the innumerable people he touched during his life-as well as a leader and friend who provided guidance and help whenever needed. His brilliant, genuinely kind, humble, and unwavering nature seemed surreal at times, particularly during critical events, both work-related and otherwise. In my experience, Dr. Burke never shied away from discussing and helping with difficult and/or chaotic issues, while holding the best intentions in his advice and service for others.

Personally, Dr. Burke taught me the concept of aequanimitas, as the ability to stay calm in the midst of uncertainty in major change. I am forever grateful for this lesson and I've carried this with me into my new career and into my daily life in general. More importantly, his active generosity of spirit and his willingness to help those who came into his life served as a philosophy, as a way of life, for those who encountered him.

Michael, may you continue to be an angel in the guidance of all of us in this journey as you were in life. I continue to pray for Dr. Burke’s family, friends, and the St. Agnes pediatric community, staff, and patients during this loss of such a wonderful, wonderful light on earth.

Lesley S. Hanes, MD, MSC

Medical Officer

Division of Gastroenterology and Inborn Errors Products (DGIEP)

Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

US Food and Drug Administration

I’m just a primary care (“frontline”) pediatrician overseas. In 1992, I graduated from high school at CHS, in a little town in Kentucky, USA. As a medical student, I got to know Contemporary Pediatrics about 1998 from an emergency pediatrician who recommended it to me when I was almost a pediatric resident. I really enjoyed reading the Puzzler and the 2 to 4 little articles [in Journal Club] with the expert opinion by Dr. Burke. I’m sorry to read today this sad news. I hope the family and those who loved him find the peace in their hearts as they know how many people he helped around the world with his knowledge and care for patients.

Esteban Pérez

From online

Few are those who stepped into my life to change it for the better. Dr Burke was one. As a young pediatrician, I was looking for role models who embodied the true craftsmanship of medicine. Dr Burke was a soft-spoken giant who embraced me with his genuine passion for teaching and mentorship. He led by example. He was often referred to by residents as the “infant whisperer” for his remarkable ability to make any infant at ease in his arms. As the attending physician on the ward, his presence had a calming effect on patients, residents, and staff alike. No matter what the day brought, he was always leading with a smile and willing to lend a helping hand. 

We lost a remarkable soul, but his legacy will live on through his family, friends, patients, and mentees.

Fatima Ismail, MBBS 

United Arab Emirates