They say we should “work until we are old enough to retire.” What age is that? For some, retirement is at 65 years, and for others, it is never. As a physician, I guess I fell in the “never” category. I never thought I would hang up my beautiful red pediatric Littman stethoscope with a picture of Princess Tiana on its diaphragm. I never thought I would replace my prescription pad with a vision board, but here we are today.
I say this because, just last week, one of my “learned” colleagues declared, “As far as I am concerned, there is never going to be a better profession than medicine!” That declaration was in response to the announcement of my retirement at age 52. I am directing my focus on a big hairy audacious goal. One that literally found me, not the other way. I am going head-on and inviting fear and failure along for the ride.
I received his declaration with mixed feelings. Half happy that he was still proud to practice medicine, a career that I had lived and breathed for three decades, but half sad because medicine has become rather toxic and literally a noose around our necks for some of us. And sadly, for some of the finest physicians I have known, it led to toxic burnout (or, if you prefer, moral injury), and ultimately, suicide.
Not so long ago, my mantra was “Peds for life!” or I would chant that I have a mix of pediatrics and red blood flowing through my veins. Insinuating that I would literally die a pediatrician. I loved what I did that much! I still love it, but sometimes, not everything you love is good for you.
I even made one last-ditch effort and took a job as the only general pediatrician at the U.S. border, catering to the unaccompanied minors, to see if was anything left for me in medicine, but I came up empty. After 30+ years, I believe I have come to the end of the road as a medical practitioner.
You see, when you are called to fulfill your destiny, you must harken to the call. As a mother of a non-binary young adult, I am now coaching parents of LGBTQ+ kids on the process of acceptance and support of their children. This is because of the high suicide rate amongst these kids, stemming largely from a lack of parental acceptance.
According to the most recent results published by The Trevor Project, 42 percent of youth exhibited suicidal behavior in the past 12 months. Suicide rates are lower in homes that are affirming for LGBTQ+ youth. Suicidal behaviors are higher when children do not feel accepted, put through conversion therapy, or bullied, amongst other things.
One in three homeless youth is in the LGBTQ+ community, and substance abuse is more prevalent. Mental health challenges like depression and anxiety, gender dysphoria, and self-harm are also prevalent in this community. And don’t get me started on low self-esteem and sexual exploitation.
The study cited above indicates that parents are the most important persons in their children’s lives. Their continued love and support ultimately determine the child’s own sense of self-worth and resilience. So, acceptance of their children is critical to these children’s survival.
And that is where I come in.
I realized that I had to make room in my heart and my life for this most important form of preventative medicine, not only as a parent, but also as a self-proclaimed “suicide prevention activist.” And for me, the best way to do that is to let go of medicine to create room for my new chapter as a speaker, author, and coach. Yes, I bet on myself, and I love it so far.
What about you? What passions lie in the depths of your heart? What call do you need to heed? What other ways can you make a difference? Why haven’t you started? What are you waiting for?
Give yourself permission. Go against the grain. Don’t give up. Start anew. Our time on this earth is finite, and while medicine is a noble and almost divine profession, There are still so many other things I can do to make a difference, and so can you, if you find that medicine is becoming a bit harder than you bargained for.
After three decades of being Dr. Uchenna L. Umeh, I am proud honored to retire that name. I am giving it back to my father and reinventing myself. I am doing it with the vigor of a teenager, and the excitement of a toddler, because I can. I am blazing a path where many fear to go. I am saying that your queer child deserves to be loved, honored, accepted, and supported. Because their lives matter, their stories matter.
A few weeks ago, I laid on my bathroom floor in the fetal position, crying. Overcome with fear of leaving medicine. After my tears dried up, I heard my voice clearly respond with: I am doing what my heart and my soul are asking, and I am doing it because there is a child out there who is praying for their parent to find me, because, for them, it is a matter of life and death.
And so, I go forth, remembering that: “If my dreams don’t cause quivering in my knees, they are not big enough.”
It is well.
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