Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Reflections on retirement

As I contemplate retirement from clinical practice as a general surgeon, something I've been doing for over 41 years including residency, I've been having some unsettling thoughts.

Like many physicians, I've tried to stay somewhat emotionally detached from my patients. You must maintain some distance in order to be able to make tough decisions and to keep on doing surgery for so long.

I have written in a previous blog about the effect of complications on the psyche of a surgeon, realizing of course, the patients and their families suffer even far more than I do. I’ve always taken complications personally, but lately I’ve been more acutely aware of this issue.

As I reach the end of my career, I find myself empathizing more and more with the plight of my patients, especially since many of them have somehow become younger than I am.
There are things you don’t think about when you are 40 or even 50 years old. I find myself making a long mental list of diseases that I hope I never get. Lately, I've been pondering a real conundrum. Which is worse, growing old and becoming demented with a body that still has many miles left on the odometer, or having the body break down and remaining lucid enough to realize what a mess you are in?
I haven't settled that issue yet but I'm leaning toward dementia as long as I'm pleasant. Unfortunately having been a cranky bastard for pretty much my entire life, I think I'm more likely to be a disagreeable if dementia sets in, so maybe the sound mind/unsound body option would be a better deal for my family. Too bad they don’t get to choose. Nor do I.

I would prefer neither. In an attempt to postpone physical deterioration, I've been exercising regularly and am in the best shape I can ever recall, including when I was in high school.

If you’ve been following me, you know that for mental gymnastics, I've been blogging about three times a week for the last two years. I plan to continue writing for long as I can coherently put two sentences together.

Perhaps it is the end of summer that has made me melancholy. Or possibly it’s realizing that very soon the way I have defined myself for the last 41 years will no longer apply. Let’s look at the bright side. At cocktail parties, people who used to ask me for medical advice will probably think twice knowing that I’m retired. Instead maybe they’ll start asking when does “its” take an apostrophe.

A version of this post appeared on General Surgery News on 8/27/2012.


Anonymous said...

You and I are in the same vintage. I retired from a large urologic practive after 37 years (not counting training)last February. My advice is try to look at retirement as simply the next phase, not as a loss, such as an athelete who simply can no longer perform. Our support group from childhood on always emphasized achievement, but gave no thought to what to do when you did all that but did not die yet. An annecdote from Bill Russell, former Celtic great. While he was still playing, he and a teammate, Satch Sanders, were in a store in suburban Boston. The proprietor, who was white, saw these two tall, black men. Not knowing who they were, he asked Russell "Are you basketball players?" He replied, "no." After they left, Satch asked Bill, when asked that question, why he said no. He responded, "Basketball is what I do, not what I am." I am not that pure nor probably are you, but we must find the other part of ourselves to feel worthwhile in retirement. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I expect you will discover some hidden talents and interest, once you get through a transition period. I have taken early retirement given mantle cell lymphoma treatment and to my surprise am active and far from bored.

Best wishes

Anonymous said...

With such good communication skills the "retired you" will no doubt stay active, involved and questioning. That is what keeps any of us young at heart.
As a nurse practitioner, I had the privilege of working with general surgeons for many years and came to respect and admire their work ethic, dedication to pts and expertise. Surgery is truly a calling of heroic proportions (in my estimation).
I'll be stopping in here to see what you are up to...

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Thanks for the supportive comments. I hope to continue blogging indefinitely. I have been blogging for General Surgery News and Physician's Weekly for a while now too.

Unknown said...

After watching multiple family members go through Alzheimers, I have noticed that it tends to effect the personality to the opposite. The once mean and grumpy great-aunt is now thoughtful and caring. (That was wonderfully unexpected, as I got to know a great lady my mother never had the paitence to be around.) Sadly though, on my husbands side, a kind, generous, professional level guitar player, and all around fantastic person degraded into the most miserable, hateful and mean person I've had to misfortune to encounter. My husband spent a great deal of time apologizing saying, "He wasn't always this way, you really would have loved the old Sam..."
I now feel that I would rather have all of my wits about me, but be stricken with cancer than have my family put through the trials of my mental decline with physical health.
It's a terrible thing to not be able to trust your own thoughts.

Skeptical Scalpel said...

Sarah, that's an interesting observation. I wonder if anyone has studied that on a larger scale.

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