Medical journals and business publications are filled with advice on retirement. Most of the articles address financial planning and lifestyle adjustments to ensure a happy retirement. But what leads a physician to decide to retire? How does it feel to say goodbye to your life’s work? I can tell you that it is not straightforward.
Retirement was never in my game plan. After college, I briefly worked in the computer industry. Compared to being at university, working was too restrictive. I hated the corporate dress code and the 9 to 5 workday. So I revised my career plan and decided to spend as many years as possible in school. Since medical training seemed to take forever, I applied. The best part was that you could get paid for training after medical school. I hoped to train in multiple fellowships to extend my time in training. I loved everything about being a doctor. From the moment that I pulled the shroud off my anatomy class cadaver, I was entranced by the practice of medicine. They call it practice for a reason. You get better at it every day. Sometimes, you help to save a life. Even on an ordinary day, you make people feel better. Practicing medicine is continuous learning. Science has changed cardiology practice dramatically. In my practice, I embraced every new technology and treatment. Despite the extra hours that electronic medical records added to my day, I was thrilled to have so much data at my fingertips. I was enthusiastic about going to work each day. My colleagues and patients expected me to work until I died. I shared that expectation. So it came as a shock when my husband suggested that I retire early. My partner and I had sold our practice to a large hospital system several years before. The hospital group employed us. I was reviewing my employment renewal contract, when my husband said, “I wish you would not keep working until I die.” It was an epiphany for me. We both had colleagues who had died while they were still working. More than one had died in their offices. Many of our friends had retirement dreams that were never realized because of ill health or worse.
So 1 year ago, at age 63, I retired. I declined any retirement parties. They never conveyed the excitement of what being a doctor truly was. After years of devoting myself to the care of my patients and keeping up with the advances in medicine, my job was done. I shared tearful goodbyes with my staff and some of my patients. Many expressed appreciation for my care and expertise. The most touching conversation was with the son of a patient who was dong well many years after bypass surgery. He related his gratitude for his father’s presence at family milestones like his wedding and the birth of his son. He credited me with bestowing so much family joy. In truth, I had only chosen a skilled cardiothoracic surgeon. But I was grateful for his kind words. On the other hand, some comments about my retirement were demoralizing. One woman was relieved that she could see a colleague in the suburbs so she would no longer need to drive into town. Her comments felt callous but now that I am retired, I am happy to no longer deal with rush hour traffic myself!
In retirement, I have taken up several hobbies that I had put aside as medicine took up all of my time. The long workdays and the extra work on the weekends to catch up had absorbed all of my time and energy. I used to joke that I was addicted to my job. I was worried that it was my only talent. I was wrong. It has been a year since I retired. I still miss my colleagues, patients and staff. I miss earning a paycheck, and I am reluctant to make large purchases. In truth, I do not want more things. I threw away a lifetime of accumulated things when we moved. Instead, I am acquiring new experiences. I have taken up long abandoned hobbies like painting and sailing. I am thrilled to be good at something other than being a doctor. My sense of selfworth has been challenged since I retired. When I am asked what I do, I can no longer say, “I am a cardiologist”. On the other hand, I am no longer exhausted. I exercise regularly and feel years younger than I thought was possible. I am surprised to be having so much fun. My advice to any physician is to think about what your retirement will be like. Retirement is a lot like medicine. It gets better with practice.