Being in practice for 42 years was like running a marathon. Things seem easy and pleasant at first, but then as time goes by, you hit the “wall” and you feel like you can’t go on. “It’s just too hard,” you think. And you wonder: “What am I doing here?”
In an actual marathon, you hit that wall somewhere around the 20-mile mark. (At least that’s what my son tells me.) But in my family medicine practice, I hit the wall at the 10-year mark.
If, like me, you decide not to quit, the endorphins kick in. You feel a high and know you could go on like this forever. You wonder to yourself: “Can life really be this good?”
And then, as the years pass by, you and your patients change and you know the race is coming to an end. It’s time to stop running. Yet, there are many losses in giving up practice. After spending nearly a lifetime as a doctor, it’s hard to give up that identity. That’s who you are, and who you have been.
In my case, I saw the doctor-patient relationship as a “covenant, not a contract,” as Gayle Stephens, MD, described it, and my role as a physician was to prescribe myself as my most potent therapy, as taught by Michael Balint.1
David Loxterkamp has written about “being there” as the prime service of the family doctor.2 But in retiring you are not there—at least not the way you once were.
How about lunch, doc?
When I retired 5 years ago, many patients wanted to “go out to lunch” or in some way maintain our relationship. I avoided this, saying that I thought it was important for them to develop a relationship with their new doctor. This was (and is) true, but I’ve come to realize that it is not the most important reason to pass on such invitations.
Lovers breaking up say they can “still be friends,” even though they know that is impossible. They can neither give up the special feelings they have had, nor the memories of those feelings that will always be a relevant part of their lives. Similarly, I have too much invested in these relationships to “just be friends.”
I have moved on. My wife of 52 years and I travel and visit our children and grandchildren. I take and teach classes at a program for retired people. I have more free time than I have ever had, and I don’t miss the constant sense of responsibility for others, or the time spent agonizing over mistakes. But it was the right time to leave practice when technological advancements were accelerating at lightning speed, and my energy level was no longer keeping pace.
Mixed emotions when I talk to patients
Despite not wanting to have lunch with my former patients, I must confess that I periodically call some of them to see how they are doing. I realize that it is really more for me than for them—but I try not to make that obvious. Our conversations leave me with such mixed emotions.
Bob and his family were patients of mine almost from the day I started. I attended their daughters’ weddings, shared in their tragedies, cared for multiple illnesses, and counseled the children. When Bob was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, I told him it was very early and we would go through it together and learn from each other. Then I retired.
I know through my conversations with him and his family that he has gone on with good care. But he has gone on without me.
I feel guilty.
I realize that some of this is ego—a loss of importance. But mainly I feel badly that I am not fulfilling that promise I made to him. And I have “cheated” myself out of the pleasure of learning and giving.
I was particularly close with Marylou and her family. I attended birthday parties, cared for her and her husband’s chronic illnesses, supported them through the illness and death of their daughter, and listened when that’s all I could do. Last year, Marylou called me when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I stayed in touch and expressed my pleasure when she did well. But, I wasn’t involved in the therapy decisions and I wasn’t there when it was time to cry or talk to the family.