Coping With Retirement and the Transition to Senior Status

Timothy J. Gardner, MD


April 12, 2018

I recently retired as the medical director of the Heart & Vascular Center at the Christiana Care Health System in Delaware. I was in that position for more than 10 years, after spending the prior decade at the University of Pennsylvania, most of that time as chief of cardiothoracic surgery. As my retirement date approached, I was a bit uneasy with the prospect of a less structured life. After all, I had spent almost 50 years training for and then pursuing the professional life of a cardiac surgeon in busy academic programs. Would I be satisfied as a retiree?


When I announced my impending retirement at Christiana, I was surprised by the congratulations I received from so many people. The word "congratulations" seemed incongruous. I had to remind myself that for most people, retirement is a reward after a lifetime of work. But I didn't view it that way, probably because I really have enjoyed my life's work as a physician and surgeon.

I was surprised by the congratulations I received from so many people. The word 'congratulations' seemed incongruous.

Many people asked what I was going to do in my "well-earned retirement." I explained that I was still a physician and hoped to stay involved in medicine even if I wasn't employed. When mulling over what I might do, I recalled a remark made by an icon in cardiology a few years ago. Commenting on his own amazing career, Dr Eugene Braunwald said something to the effect that: We shouldn't retire. Rather, we should continue to make transitions in the work that we do as physicians. A testament to that advice is his own awesome contributions and accomplishments well after many of his early peers have faded away.

The Call of the Golf Course

Few of us can expect to match the career transitions of Eugene Braunwald. And, for that matter, many physicians happily choose a retirement that is free of the demands of medical practice. It is easy to understand when a hard-working colleague chooses to spend their latter years in a warm climate working seriously on their golf or tennis game. Would I want to stay engaged if I had a low golf handicap and were competitive in golf circles? Even if I were a great golfer, I think that I would stay engaged in some way!

For my postretirement transition at this point, now in my late 70s, I have returned to the University of Pennsylvania. I have the opportunity to work with the residents, fellows, and junior faculty in cardiac surgery. I'm emulating what I saw Vincent Gott do so effectively at Johns Hopkins when he stopped active surgical practice. At this moment in time, I feel good about this transition. A mentoring role at Penn Medicine provides the opportunity to use my long experience for the benefit of a younger generation of cardiac surgeons who are the future of the specialty. I'll continue to serve on some medical and nonmedical foundations and boards, activities I find satisfying. I look forward to more time with my wife of 54 years, Nina. I aspire to read much more and to be physically active several days each week.

Physicians for Life

While my senior transition is influenced by my own career experiences, transition opportunities are as numerous and diverse as we are as individual physicians. Colleagues have transitioned to social service and advocacy roles. Some are spending time abroad supporting global health initiatives. Most have maintained some engagement with medicine through professional and specialty organizations. All of us senior physicians have the opportunity as respected and trusted members of our communities to be citizen-leaders in advocating for healthfulness and supporting those who can benefit from our unique experiences and input. We have benefited from an outstanding education and gratifying careers. Retirement need not be the end of our professional career but rather a transition. We remain physicians for life.

I'll end with a few highlights from Louis Lasagna's "Modern Physician's Oath," an adaptation of the Hippocratic Oath that he published in 1964 when he was dean of Tufts School of Medicine:

  • I will prevent disease whenever I can, for prevention is preferable to cure.

  • I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to all my fellow human beings, those sound of mind and body as well as the infirm.

  • If I do not violate this oath, may I enjoy life and art, respected while I live and remembered with affection thereafter. May I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of healing those who seek my help.

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