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Contemplating retirement is a daunting task.
For physicians this even more challenging as a large part of their identity can be related to their profession.
After years of working how do you know that it is time to leave?
This year a great friend and colleague of mine retired from my multi-specialty group.
He was a prominent surgeon in the community, loved and respected by all, and essentially was the face of the practice.
I pulled in a favor and asked if he would be willing to answer some questions regarding the transition period going from a practicing physician to an early retiree.
I am grateful he accepted the invitation and hope that you can gain some insight to use when your turn comes.
Can you tell us a little about yourself? (How old you are, how long you have been married, how many children, grandchildren and medical specialty, how many years of practice)
I am 61 y/o and have been married 40 years to my high school sweetheart. We have 4 children (one is an MD in critical care fellowship). We have 7 grandchildren. I am a general surgeon and have been in practice for 30 years in one location/practice.
How old were you when you first decided to pursue becoming a physician? Was there anyone who inspired you to take this career path?
What were some of the reasons you chose to specialize in general surgery? Were there any other specialties you were entertaining along the way?
I considered family practice but during a ob/gyn rotation in my 3rd year of med school, I was able to actually surgically tie tubes on several patients after delivery and the specialty of surgery “found me”!
You have been practicing medicine for multiple decades. What are some of the positive and negative changes in medicine you have witnessed as a physician during this time?
When you first started practicing medicine, did you have an idea of how old you would before you retired?
I had NO IDEA when to retire! I truly believe that most of us physicians make things up as we go. We are so Uber competitive that we aren’t willing to help our peers or really care what happens to them in the most essential parts of life. Don’t ask me how I know! It’s not pretty! Jealousy, pride, envy, preening, massaging the facts…oh, sounds like the rest of humanity. Well, it is because we are humans… on steroids!!! Retirement snuck up on me. I came into a very good medical real estate venture and did very well and this rounded out a safe landing financially. I’d like to take credit for the venture except I went into it kicking and screaming! I retired in good financial shape for many reasons, mostly because of the due diligence of many, much wiser and prescient than me and I benefited from mightily!
When did you start entertaining the possibility of retirement? (i.e. 6 months, a year, etc before your actual retirement date) Was there an inciting factor that made you start thinking about retiring?
I began a 5 year journey of considering retirement after a kidney mass had to be removed that was supposed to be a cancer but turned out not to be. That scared me and I started to envision a life of not going to work every day. I started slowing down and began a dialogue with administration and my surgical partners about reducing overhead to keep from swamping my slow down maneuvers. My partners were so gracious and allowed a concomitant reductions in overhead commensurate with my slowdowns in my clinical activities. This aided and abetted my slowing down tremendously and I am forever grateful to them. I have (had) five partners. This program of reductions allowed me to slip out of the practice slowly but surely and in decent financial shape.
Please fill in the blank (if appropriate): I would continue to practice medicine if ____________.
I would not continue to practice medicine again at this point anywhere into the future. I gave the best of me and, so far, the majority of my adult life to the practice of medicine. It was very rewarding and fulfilling and set me up very well in this “one wild and precious life” (Mary Oliver). It’s time to do other things that have taken a backseat to medicine. No hard feelings. I am a “forme frust” of a polymath and have so many other interests to pursue and am lucky enough to be healthy and vigorous enough to pursue them.
Was there any preparation period that you went through after the decision that you wanted to retire was made? If so, what were some of the things you needed to accomplish prior to officially retiring?
I needed a lot of help to round out my eventual retirement and fortunately I had and amazing CEO and CFO both of whom did the number crunching and leg work in my partnership to make everything transition well!
I consulted 6 financial planners who all gave me the thumbs up financially. They needed to see my holdings and to know how much my wife and I needed monthly for our lifestyle and needed to know our “risk tolerance”! We are quite modest people and these parameters we gave them were in-line with a “go” for retirement. This was VERY important to us.
Next, and more to philosophy, I realized ,after some soul-searching, that I had finished the course, fought the good fight, and that I had returned enough good to humanity thru my profession. I have always felt that the world/universe had given me many, many good gifts, and my work in life was to return those gifts. I still can and do return gifts but now in other ways. This was a culmination of A LOT of thought.
Early Retirement Period:
A practicing physician often has a large part of his or her identity derived from medicine. Did you find the transition to being retired difficult with this component removed?
I spent about 20 years off and on in some amazing personal/marital therapy that helped me work thru both personal and marital struggles. In that, I was able to discover my humanity and develop my own core values and bring my best self to my marriage. This was life changing and essential to who I am today! I do not struggle in the least with my identity. I am not a physician! I am a human being. I am a co-sojourner on this tiny outpost in this vast universe. I am fortunate in every sense to be alive and happy.
What are some of the things you miss about medicine? What are some of things you are glad to have left behind?
I am very active on Facebook and keep close tabs with all my friends from work and otherwise. So, I don’t “miss” my relationships as much as maybe docs in the past might. I did mostly breast cancer work in many of my last years in practice and I do miss the closeness with my patients. I don’t miss operating because the stress was becoming to much as my years advanced. Operating and clinical duties were stealing my equanimity so much that I could no longer abide the quid pro quo.
There is a saying that you need to retire to something instead of retiring away from something. What are some of the activities you are enjoying now that you are a retiree?
I especially enjoy time with my wife, children, family and friends. I always was at work or terribly distracted to fully engage in many relationships. I love working out via cycling, running, walking and generally anything outdoors. Water sports (boating, skiing, swimming) are life long pursuits. I enjoy gardening, reading anything and everything. I think that I love time and the absolute luxury of it most! The life surgical is good for the world but it is a robber of the surgeons soul.
Another difficult transition period happens when you are no longer earning income and are now having to rely on savings and investments. How was this transition for you?
Again, we are financially modest and our expenses have decreased-house is paid for, vehicles and boat are paid for. No real desire to have “more” or keep upgrading cars or have a second home. Our income needs are met well by using the 4% rule. Our assets are held by an adviser from a nationally reputable firm. This was important to us as we want to maximize thinking about other things. We are pleased with this arrangement so far.
On a scale of 1-10 (10 being happiest), what would you say your number was while working and now that are you retired?
My “number” on the happiness scale was probably 8-9 while working and 10 now. I have always been basically a happy person.
Have you encountered any surprises as a new retiree, good or bad?
I am surprised that things have basically turned out well as many pundits had predicted. Work very hard, save a lot, buy things that are useful and high quality and use the heck out of them. One spouse-one house-one practice! Compounded interest over time is a “thing” that works. The alchemy also includes a lot of luck and gifts that were given to me by my parents.
What are some of the challenges you face as a retiree?
I am challenged to develop male relationships that have languished b/c of my work/time constraints. Surgeons tend to be lone wolfs.
Knowing what you know now, would you have retired earlier or later than when you decided to?
I received very little inheritance from my parents financially and therefore we had to make our financial house on our own from medical school debt to where we are now! We really had no other choice but how it turned out for us. Our story is ours and it is what it is. We don’t look at life as a “what if” mindset.
What advice would you give to my readers who are contemplating retirement?
I highly recommend retirement to anyone who asks.
NOTE: If you would like to share your retirement decision-making process and how your retirement is going please contact me for a guest post opportunity.
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