Burt Routman, D.O.’68, FACOFP, says he decided to become a physician many years before he was born. His father, who had escaped a Lithuanian ghetto at age 8, expected his American-born son to become nothing other than a “doctor or a lawyer or an accountant.”
Before enrolling in the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery (COMS), now DMU, Dr. Routman worked in the dark room of an allopathic hospital, developing x-rays. When he expressed his interest in medicine to the supervising radiologist, he was told to “stay in the dark room.” Later, as a night orderly at an osteopathic hospital where he cleaned up messes and changed sheets, he had a much different experience.
“Those doctors would ask me how I was doing,” he recalls. “The surgeon invited me to scrub in and observe his surgeries.”
Dr. Routman was an active COMS student, serving as president of Sigma Sigma Phi, the national honorary osteopathic fraternity; managing editor of Pacemaker, the college yearbook; and a member of Lambda Omicron Gamma, the Interfraternity Council and the Student American Osteopathic Association.
“I’ve always been kind of a joiner. I don’t want to sit around with my thumb in my ear,” he says. “My class was a really good group. We all were joiners.”
In addition to taking classes from COMS faculty legends such as Dr. Stanley Miroyiannis, (anatomy), Evelyn and Dr. David Celander (biochemistry) and Byron Laycock (osteopathic manipulative medicine), Routman and his classmates enjoyed service activities, dances and interschool athletic competitions. They brought to campus big-name entertainers such as comedian Jackie Mason and actor/singer George Jessel. They also took on a special moniker as COMS’ first class to get into the clinical arena in their third year.
“We went out for beers one night. ‘The Ballad of the Green Berets’ came on a few times,” Dr. Routman says, referencing a then-popular song about an elite special force of the U.S. Army. “One of the guys said, ‘They wear green berets and kill people. Let’s wear white berets because we save people.’”
The White Berets were born, complete with head wear adorned with the medical symbol, the caduceus.
“All of us guys with those white berets were good friends,” he says. “Even the faculty wanted to come to our White Berets parties.”
Dr. Routman went on to a distinguished career in general practice, family medicine and medical education, serving on faculties 37 of his 40 years of practice. After his internship, he joined the U.S. Air Force as a flight surgeon, flying two years with the U.S.A.F. Thunderbirds, the force’s air demonstration squadron. He was a longtime leader in the American College of Osteopathic Family Physicians (ACOFP) and other osteopathic organizations and received ACOFP’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. He has been honored as the Iowa Osteopathic Medical Association Physician of the Year and the Tennessee Osteopathic Medical Association’s Paul Grayson Smith Sr. Physician of the Year.
Dr. Routman also was the very first osteopathic physician to be licensed as a doctor in Israel, at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
“I had to meet with everybody from the minister of health on down. They checked my education from back to first grade,” he says.
In addition, he has been to China twice to teach physicians there about family practice, which hadn’t existed in that country. “The first group we taught were Chinese M.D. specialists who are now family physicians, and who are teaching another group,” he says. “They chose us as osteopathic physicians to do the education. They called us ‘American experts.’”
Dr. Routman says he loved taking care of patients and teaching students, but he had no regrets about retiring at age 73. That’s allowed him and his wife, Debbie, to enjoy another love of their lives: the theater. She had a career as a set designer and managing director of a 450-seat theater. He landed his first role, as Old King Cole, in the first grade. Just recently, he wrapped up his role as the blind hermit in a production of “Young Frankenstein.” He’s acted on several stages, including in Des Moines, where he also served as president of the Des Moines Playhouse. The two met at an international theater conference.
President of the Performing Arts Club in their South Carolina community, Dr. and Ms. Routman are true theatrical collaborators. Two years ago, she researched, wrote and did the stage design for a play, “Echoes of War,” which he co-directed. The production was such a hit that the couple are now working on “Route 66,” which he calls “a musical journey along the Mother Road” of America.
Dr. Routman’s career, in several ways, epitomizes the holistic, whole-body orientation of osteopathic medicine. Physician, teacher, leader, ambassador for his profession and the arts – he rightfully feels good about what he has contributed, and what he’ll continue to do.
“Long after I’m dead and buried,” he says, “my legacy will be all over the world.”