Is There Life Beyond the M.D.?
By Jim Duffy
Ending medical practice once meant the loss of all things meaningful to a physician. These days, doctors report that retirement can be more about beginnings.
On the Beach with the Hook-and-Ladder Team
“I’ve never set foot in Florida,” grumbles Mervyn Lee Carey, “and that’s a point of pride for me.” Each winter, the former obstetrician/gynecologist watches so many of his retiree neighbors in Bethany Beach, Del., flock south that he and wife, Louise, feel like they’re living in a ghost town.
All that quiet leaves Merv plenty of time to pursue the several passions that have moved to center stage in his life since he retired 15 years ago. Carey (SOM-1954) spent most of his career in a private ob/gyn practice in Baltimore. “I went into this business to be my own boss, because I’m an individualist,” he says. “It worked out great there for a while.” But as insurance rules and government regulations grew more cumbersome, Carey grew more disenchanted.
In the ’70s, he and Louise began crafting their course for life after medicine. They bought a plot in a Bethany Beach development and built a house they’d dub “Flyway’s End,” because it lies in the winter spot of choice for Canada geese. Moving to the shore in 1980, Merv signed on with an existing group practice, ignoring warnings from Baltimore colleagues who predicted small-town doctoring would bore him to death. “I told them, ‘Don’t kid yourself. In a place like this you’ve got to be a real doctor; you can’t just call in a specialist every time there’s a problem,’” Carey recalls.
Four years later, at age 60, Carey figured he’d made enough new friends and grown sufficiently comfortable in his new surroundings to give up doctoring altogether. So, in characteristic never-do-anything-halfway fashion, he immediately let all his medical licenses lapse. Then he signed on for 400 hours of fire-safety instruction and joined the Bethany Beach Volunteer Fire Department. Now, he’s captain of the hook-and-ladder truck.
He’s also heavily into tennis, fishing and hunting. His lifelong passion for the latter led to his hobby of carving wooden wildfowl decoys, which he began crafting years ago as holiday gifts for friends and family. Right now, he’s got a backlog of two dozen orders from fans of his work.
Carey speculates that his retirement has probably been so successful because he and Louise have “self-sufficient” personalities. “You have to have enough interests, and you have to feel like you’re contributing to the world,” he advises.
Five years ago, he tried to retire again. Worried that he was too old to carry on with his firefighting duties, he submitted a letter of resignation to the department. When Chief Chad Hickman failed to respond, Carey phoned him up. “Yeah, Doc, we got it,” Hickman informed him. “And when we want to get rid of you, that’s when we’ll process it.”
Travels with Dick and Mickey
Whoever said getting there is half the fun didn’t consult Dick Wheat. In his case, it’s the whole point. Since retiring a year ago after four-plus decades as an internist and health-care administrator in Los Altos, Calif., Wheat and his wife, Mickey, have been cruising the continent by Ford Explorer, with a 21-foot Aerolite trailer in tow. “It’s got enough room so you can turn around inside,” Wheat brags. “And—now this is the critical factor—it’s got a bathroom.”
We’re not talking weekend sightseers here. Last summer, the Wheats took a two-month, 9,000-mile trek to Alaska to visit the fabled national parks in the “Land of the Midnight Sun.” That pales in comparison to their next undertaking—a cross-continental expedition leading to a grand culmination in Baltimore in June for Dick’s 50th med-school reunion at the Medical and Surgical Association’s Biennial Meeting.
On the way to Hopkins, the couple will check out Santa Fe, Big Bend National Park, Cumberland College (a Kentucky school they support for its work in Appalachia), friends’ homes in Georgia and Florida, and North Carolina’s Barrier Islands. After the reunion, they’ll detour up the coast to Boston, Maine and the maritime provinces before turning back west across Canada. All told, the tour should total 13,000 miles or so and take four months.
projects. He’s on the board of directors of the Sempervirens Fund, which protects redwoods, and he coordinates a group of physicians working for an outreach service for the homeless. He and Mickey team up as volunteer teachers of literature to a class of fifth-graders. “I never had enough time when I was practicing, and I don’t have enough time now,” he says. The one odious job he and Mickey finally tackled is something they’d been putting off for decades: “We’ve lived in our [Los Altos] house for 47 years, and this is the first time it’s been really clean.”
“There comes a time when everyone should back out of clinical work,” Wheat philosophizes. “I figured the age of 73 was appropriate.”
Picking up the Pen in Maine
If only she could be both a doctor and a writer, Elizabeth Longshore Loewald used to wish when she was in her early teens, 60 years ago. Finally, she chose medicine, almost unconsciously settling on the specialty that relies most on narrative—psychiatry.
A 1948 graduate of the School of Medicine, Loewald practiced as a psychotherapist in New Haven, Conn., and taught at the Yale Child Study Center, but she never completely shook the writing bug. During a long struggle with tuberculosis during her residency, she kept herself sane through months in sanatoriums by devouring shelves of Russian novels, her special passion, and even wrote a novel—“a bad one,” she now confesses. Later, when she stayed home for a time to raise two young daughters, she tried her hand at poetry and short stories and succeeded in having a few pieces published.
But in retirement, she’s devoting herself completely to her other self. After her husband, Hans, died in 1993, Loewald moved to Peaks Island, Maine, where the family had spent summers. The island off the coast of Portland, she says, delivers the natural beauty and rural atmosphere she craves, but it also sits just a short ferry ride from the medical care and cultural amenities of a small city.
Her total transition to writing took five years. After the move, she worked part time as a supervisor at Maine Medical Center and as a consultant with a residential-care provider for disturbed children. Meanwhile, she signed on for writers’ workshops, published poetry with a small literary press, and embarked on a novella about children in a special-needs classroom. Only last year did Loewald leave medicine altogether.
And she’s found her project. Like her, the Russian writer Anton Chekhov was a physician. Now, she’s researching a book about the subtle links between his dual careers. “I’m fascinated by how he thought about those two things,” Loewald says. “He always said medicine was his wife and writing was his mistress, but none of the biographies I’ve read explain his experiences as a doctor.”
To get to the root of Chekhov, Loewald wants to understand him in his native tongue, so once a week she rides the ferry into Portland to meet a Russian-language tutor at the Arabica coffee shop. She’s also taking a course in Russian culture at the University of Southern Maine.
“I guess one of the things I feel lucky about is that at the age of 75, I’ve still got the good health and a fair amount of energy to tackle all this,” Loewald says. “If I had one piece of advice for people, it’d be don’t wait too long if you’re going to try something really different in retirement.”
Hitting the High Notes in Lancaster
Jim Martin’s mother never was overly impressed with her son’s medical career. “She always looked on me as her son the singer,” Martin confides. She would be proud to see him now: After four decades as a solo family practitioner, Martin (SOM-1946) spends his retirement singing tenor in no fewer than four choirs, playing the recorder, working for charitable causes and perfecting his steps in English country dancing.
Martin the doctor began easing into his second life in the late ’80s when he took on a young partner in his thriving office. For about three years, the two shared patients as the older man gradually backed off day-to-day practice. Then, in 1990, Martin’s name came off the shingle completely. “When I was younger, I thought that family physicians never retired, that they just kept on going and going,” he ruminates. “Somewhere along the way, I got a little wiser.”
On a rainy day in late January, when a visitor called at the Homestead Retirement Community in Lancaster, Pa., where Martin has lived alone since the death last October of his wife, Doris (a 1946 graduate of the School of Nursing), classical music wafted softly through his modest home in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Signs that his skills reach beyond music were all over the place. An elegant wooden screen standing near the front door with tree shapes carved into each panel: made by Martin. The garden outside: tended by Martin. The sweater vest he’s wearing: knitted by Martin. The drapes in the bedroom window: sewn by Martin. The living-room couch: upholstered by Martin.
It’s all pretty matter-of-fact to this ebullient, white-haired grandfather with the Amish-style beard and raucous laugh. To Jim Martin, these are the activities of a lifetime. He learned to sing as a child and to knit as a teenager. He’s been in the St. James Episcopal Church Choir for nearly 50 years. He joined the charitable Lancaster Sertoma Club in 1952. He’s been a regular at a New England summer camp for recorder players for 35 years.
“Once I get started with something,” he says, “I tend to stick with it. Retirement shouldn’t be the kind of thing that turns your life upside down. Look on it as an opportunity to expand on the things you enjoy. I loved family practice while I was in it, but I haven't missed it for a minute."