The Perfect Enemy | Louisville’s Dr. Mark Burns a recognizable face in COVID-19 fight
September 27, 2022

Louisville’s Dr. Mark Burns a recognizable face in COVID-19 fight

Louisville’s Dr. Mark Burns a recognizable face in COVID-19 fight  Courier Journal

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When Dr. Mark Burns was about 5 years old, a stray dog bit his hand outside a laundromat at 20th and Jefferson streets in Louisville.  

He went to what was then Louisville General Hospital to get a rabies shot. All around him in the waiting room were people sick and injured, some still bleeding.  

The doctor who saw him knew so much, Burns said, and the physician’s long white coat fascinated him as a child.   

“I remember telling my mother that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up,” Burns told The Courier Journal. “So, that’s what put me on the path.

“Growing up, all the way through my childhood and adolescence and even early adulthood, I’d always been interested in what made people sick and how people got better,” the doctor, infectious disease expert and professor added.

His curiosity has come in handy during the pandemic, during which Burns, 65, was thrust into the public focus. He’d had no prior media experience, but during the last two years he became an often-featured expert in the news, using his teaching skills to educate the public as well as the press about COVID-19, vaccines and, lately, about monkeypox.

After graduating from duPont Manual High School ― where he played basketball ― Burns attended the University of Louisville for two years and played junior varsity before transferring to Ohio State and majoring in respiratory therapy.  

He then came back to his hometown of Louisville and attended U of L for medical school, graduating in 1988.

Sports and physical activity stayed important in his life: He ran 10Ks and mini marathons until the early 2000s and also played basketball recreationally. He and friends from medical school even played in a doctor’s basketball league for a few years but, “as all of us got older, our knees … reminded us that this is a young man’s game,” he said.

Still, while it lasted they won trophies and even competed against University of Kentucky medical school students in a home and home series.

“And by the way, we beat them every time we played them,” he said, laughing.

Burns didn’t particularly plan on being in his hometown throughout his career. But as the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s started changing Louisville, and seeing a need for increased medical infrastructure in the city, especially in the West End where he grew up on Standard Avenue, he decided to stay.

More:Ravaged by 1968 uprising, this Louisville neighborhood is coming back to life. Here’s how

Before becoming a professor and switching to an infectious disease career focus, Burns worked at the VA hospital’s emergency department from 1991 to 2015, treating conditions like heart attacks, strokes and acute bleeding.  

In full circle moments, he even got to treat some dog bites and was “extremely sympathetic” to those patients, though he never stopped loving dogs.

When treating those dog bites, he said, “I do remember thinking to myself, ‘this is how I got started.’”  

‘One disease after the other’

By 2019, he said, it felt like there had been a series of diseases every so often in the news ― H1N1, SARS Cov-1, Ebola, Zika. As an infectious disease physician ― board certified in 2017 ― he kept up-to-date on contagions and wasn’t especially rattled when a new one emerged.

“It kinda seemed like … one disease after the other,” he said.  

Burns didn’t see a pandemic coming, he said.

But when a friend of his died in early 2020 from COVID-19 complications, he realized how serious and severe the virus could be.

“Here we were with this massive disease and really no treatment for it,” he said.  

Vaccines weren’t approved until late in 2020, and even then, many refused to take them.

Burns is among the medical leaders who, through his work and partnership with the Jefferson County health department, has advocated for a vaccinated population that would “put this virus in a box, so there’s nowhere for it to go.”

“The frustrating part has been, for me, that there have been things available ― and I’m talking specifically about vaccines,” he said. “But even after a year, even after two years, people are still skeptical of the vaccines.”  

His girlfriend of three years has been a “great inspiration” to him, he said, throughout the pandemic. A registered nurse, she has helped him figure out how to best educate people who are hesitant to get vaccinated.

Over the last two and a half years, Burns has managed to avoid contracting the virus himself. When he works out at the YMCA in the early morning hours several days a week, he still wears a mask.  

More:Latest COVID-19 subvariant BA.5 is sweeping through Louisville. Here’s what to know

Looking to the future

In the coming year, Burns would like to see COVID-19 in the rearview mirror.

Even once the pandemic ends, though, “There’s always new infectious disease challenges that will come along,” Burns said. “Hopefully we’ll be able to deal with those. Hopefully, the public will trust the medical community more.”

Meanwhile, he’ll keep encouraging vaccines and educating people about monkeypox and whatever other diseases arise.

“This is my bold prediction: I do believe that we will have a vaccine for HIV … in the next couple of years,” he added. “I’m … looking forward to that.”

Burns isn’t planning on retiring any time soon, he said: “I’m having too much fun.”

Reach health reporter Sarah Ladd at sladd@courier-journal.com. Follow her on Twitter at @ladd_sarah.