A retired physician asks: Am I still a doctor?

Monday morning and no place to go. After 35 years of practicing medicine and GI, including a year of eager anticipation, the day had arrived when there were no patients in my schedule. Nor would there be tomorrow. Nor the next day.

I was happily accustomed to a scheduled life. For me it had been decades of awakening early, working out, assembling a breakfast to inhale in the car, kissing the family, and getting to work in time for my 8 a.m. patient.  I could look at my schedule and know pretty much what I would be doing every moment of the day. How many procedures. How many delightful patients. How many of the other kind.

Patients wondered why I was retiring — or abandoning them, as not a few put it — at a relatively youthful 65. They circuitously asked if I were ill. Nope. Fed up with Obamacare? Nah. Angry at my employer? Only a little. Crazy? Perhaps.

The real answer was quite simple: I was able to retire, and there were other things I wanted to do. I feared looking back at 75 and wondering if I could have … whatever. And 75 is guaranteed to no one.

I was looking forward to pursuing a new career as a public speaker and author and to resuming my past life as a professional magician and ventriloquist. (Yes, really.) And yet there was a deep sadness, a feeling of loss. Because after 25 years of schooling and 35 years of practice, being a doctor was not what I did. It was who I was.

For physicians, the superficially uplifting popular meme “you are not what you do” simply doesn’t apply. Medicine insinuates itself into the core of our beings. It defines us not just to the world, but to ourselves. After so many years, there was no difference, internally or externally, between Bob the person and Bob the doctor.

But now Bob the doctor feels a little hollowed out. No one seeks my counsel, nor my diagnostic skills. No one is trusting me with their most precious possession, their health. Without access to e-scribing, I can’t even help out a friend who needs a prescription. And no one is insisting that it be I who performs their colonoscopy. (Yes, you non-GIs, I miss that, too.)

Is a doctor who doesn’t doctor still a doctor?

Fortunately, my wiser, better half brought clarity. She told me that of course, I’m still a doctor, I’m just using my skills, my knowledge, and my experience differently — as an author, speaker, and teacher. I’ll still be helping people, serving them, just not one at a time.

But the ambivalence persists. On the one hand, I am reminded of the words of the character Hermie in the movie Summer of’42: “Life is made up of small comings and goings. And for everything we take with us, there is something that we leave behind.”

On the other hand, I now set the alarm for 7 a.m., not 6.

Robert Baker is a retired physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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