Dr. Alfred Burnside: How he stepped in to fill a void

October 14, 2008 

Dr. Alfred Burnside is one of the few Columbia doctors who early on was willing to see HIV/AIDS patients. His partner, John Wyndham, right, joins others in recognizing him at his retirement party in April.

C. ALUKA BERRY/CABERRY@THESTATE.COM — The State

One patient file at a time, Alfred Burnside Jr. packed up his records after more than 50 years of practice — 23 of those years dedicated to people with HIV/AIDS.

As he worked, long-stored names stirred fresh memories of the 600 or so patients he had lost to AIDS over the years.

“It’s very sad when you look back,” said Burnside, 78, who was closing his practice last spring. “I had to face all the records of all the people who had died.

“It was really rough to see the names — to be reminded of people I had taken care of for years.”

Burnside also was trying to place his 400 current patients with new doctors. That task is easier now than it would have been 23 years ago when Burnside began caring for people with HIV/AIDS.

At the time, many doctors refused to see people with HIV/AIDS out of fear or prejudice. Some thought it was a waste of medical resources to treat people who had the deadly disease.

Burnside took it upon himself to teach other doctors about the disease.

For his work, Burnside received the S.C. Medical Association’s Physician Award for Community Service in 2002.

“I think part of his success is getting the information out ... despite himself. He’s an old-school Southern gentleman who would not offend anyone,” said his longtime partner, John Wyndham, who managed Burnside’s office.

A general surgeon by training, Burnside became an HIV specialist by chance in the early 1980s, when men with AIDS began showing up at his office.

The numbers soon rose into the hundreds.

“Our being gay, we had a lot of gay patients who felt comfortable coming to us for sexually related diseases and problems,” Wyndham said.

At first, Burnside referred them to other doctors. Soon he realized that not many doctors knew much about HIV/AIDS.

“We began to discover that we knew as much as others about HIV infection,” he said.

Burnside sought out more information on AIDS. He also participated in more than 30 HIV drug studies and co-wrote many scientific papers on HIV/AIDS, including one of the first papers on the use of AZT to treat patients with AIDS.

His office established a fund, named for Wyndham, that helped pay for medicine for patients who could not afford it.

Often, Burnside used his own money to keep the practice going.

As drugs improved and patients lived longer, Burnside faced a new dilemma: how to persuade patients to keep taking their medications when they didn’t feel sick.

Burnside is fiercely protective of his patients’ privacy, though many speak openly and fondly of their experiences with him.

Brian Morgan received his HIV diagnosis in 1998. It left him feeling “nasty.”

It was Burnside who made Morgan feel human again.

“He put everything back into perspective for me,” Morgan said. “He said, ‘You just take control.’”

Thommeka Montgomery met Burnside six years ago, when her body was wasting away from AIDS. Misinformed by others about HIV medicines, she refused to take the drugs that could save her life.

“I was about to die,” she said. Burnside persuaded her to take her medicine.

“He was very loving, very kind,” she said. “He taught me not to care about other people’s ignorance.”

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