I retired from my general surgery career in my early fifties, after 23 years in practice, almost exactly according to the plan I made in medical school. Most people congratulate me for achieving my goal. A few vilify me for wasting my medical education, as if it is never acceptable for a physician to retire. I hear comments like “Why go into medicine if you are intending to retire so young?” They often label being a physician as a calling you can never quit instead of a career you retire from. Some feel, when medicine is chosen as a career, it should be required to see patients until you die.
The problem with this endless career philosophy is not every physician is able or willing to work until they die. Most will retire at some point. Some will retire on their own terms, some will be forced out because they stayed too long and can’t function well anymore, and some will leave because they died.
I chose to retire on my terms, when I was at the top of my game, hadn’t lost my edge to my age, and had enough passive income to be comfortable for the rest of my life without working. I chose to practice medicine for 23 years (including the nine years of training brings my career to 32 years). Others may choose to practice 30 years, 40 years, or even longer. We all have to make the choice for ourselves, or life will choose for us. We shouldn’t hold it against one another for working a different length of time then we chose.
During my years serving on the medical executive committee of the hospital, I was heartbroken when I needed to consider removing privileges from physicians who had stayed beyond their expiration date. They felt a calling to be physicians and never wanted to give it up. But they were getting too old to safely take care of patients. Since they did not have the self-awareness to know they had lost their edge, we had to break that news to them. After that experience, I never wanted to be on the other end of that discussion. I wanted to retire from medicine before someone felt the need to remove my hospital privileges.
As for medicine being a calling, it was always a calling for me, just as it was for many of you. Being a physician was what I wanted to do since grade school. My career path never wavered. I loved being a physician and I loved my patients. It was a great profession.
I did not leave medicine easily or lightly. It took four years after reaching financial independence and contemplated retiring to actually pull the trigger and retire. During this four-year period, I worried that I would miss surgery and miss my patients. I also worried that people might think poorly of me for giving up medicine so young. What would I say when asked “What do you do?” That answer had always been, “I’m a surgeon.” Then I realized, I should not choose my retirement date based on what others might think, it had to be done because of what I think. It was my needs that should drive this decision, not the wants and desires of others.
I have also heard that if you choose medicine as a career, it should be your only purpose. I’m so glad that medicine was not my only purpose in life. If it had been, I would have been totally lost when I did not, or could not, practice medicine anymore. My wife would have missed me if she hadn’t been one of my purposes all those years. My kids would have grown up without me if I had put my calling ahead of them. After all, my family was one of my purposes too. My church would have not had a worship leader if that was not one of my purposes.
People whose careers are their only purpose in life miss out on so much of life. They are the ones we label “workaholics.” Their kids don’t really know them as they seldom see them. They rise before the sun and don’t come home until long after it has set. They often burn through a few spouses and maybe even burnout themselves.
Medicine was the purpose that made me feel productive in life, but it was not my entire life. When I left medicine, I took on a new purpose in order to continue to feel productive. I help other physicians live a better life with more fulfillment and less financial bondage. As a surgeon, I realized I could only help a few dozen people a week, those I could personally see. As an author, coach, and speaker, I help tens of thousands of physicians and other high income professionals every week. There is no possible way I could help that many people in my office, even if it were open 24/7.
No, all of my training in medicine was not wasted. During my active practice I helped tens of thousands of people regardless of their ability to pay. I established a free clinic for the homeless at our local Gospel Rescue Mission. I spent time as Chief of Surgery, Chief of Trauma, President of our Medical Society, and President of the Medical Staff. I served as a board member of the Hospital Foundation, the Independent Physicians Association, and the Ambulatory Surgery Center. Outside of patient care I co-hosted a call-in radio show on medicine, was chairman of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Applicants, as well as serving many other organizations both in and out of medicine. Often it was because I was trained as a physician that these organizations wanted my input.
I help more people now than I ever did in my office, the hospital and the surgery center combined. Physicians come to me today because they can relate to me since I am one of them and was trained the same way they were, and have experienced the same trials and tribulations. For every one of those physicians I help stay healthy and happy, I am helping all the patients they see because they didn’t burnout and their career was extended.
I didn’t quit medicine, I simple changed who my patients were. Today I am healing the healers and it feels very good. I am fulfilled doing what I do.
I wish for every physician to have as wonderful of a career in medicine as I did and I will not second guess the age in which they choose to retire, whether it is 50 or 85, as long as they can still competently practice medicine. A calling should be pursued until it is no longer calling you. There will come a day when it becomes clear to you that it is time to hang up your shingle. When you do, do it with pride. Don’t be bothered by the thoughts of others who do not like the retirement age you chose, simply because it was different than the one they set for themselves. You spent many years of your life devoted to helping others and you should be proud of that. Walk away with your head held high and get out there and enjoy the next season of your life.
The first half of my life was used to make a living. I intend to use the second half to make a difference.
If you are contemplating retiring from your medical career, read The Doctors Guide to Smart Career Alternatives and Retirement before you make the move. It just might help you make the transition a little smoother.