Thinking about early retirement? Considering a career change? You may want to read this blog.
At age 49, I was at the top of a successful career in academic obstetrics and gynecology when my best friend died unexpectedly from a complication of heart at age 50. This tragedy shocked my wife, Anne, and me out of our complacency. We started to recall all the things we wanted to do and had been thinking of over the years but had been putting off till later. We realized that ‘later’ might become ‘never’ as it happened for our best friend. Many of my academic colleagues kept working in the career they started till medical or other issues prevented them from enjoying their retirement when it finally came. We needed to rearrange our priorities, so it seemed, and thus we began to consider our options. After a lot of discussions with Anne, I decided that I would retire from my academic position at age 55 and pursue other interests. When I told my chairman, he tried to talk me out of it. But my mind was made up. Thus began the second phase of our plan, and undoubtedly the more difficult one. We were not financially wealthy and needed an income, but could afford a reduced salary as our four children were grown and independent. But leaving my academic career at the University of Miami behind and jumping into the unknown was a bit scary to say the least.
We considered giving up medicine altogether and starting something entirely new, such as farming, raising horses, orchard growing, etc. We went through many possibilities but kept coming back to the fact that my skills were in obstetrics and gynecology and that the best option was to continue to build on that skill. So we started looking for opportunities. We first contacted various religious organizations with medical activities in developing countries. Africa appealed to us as I had worked there for two years right after internship in the former Belgian Congo. For one reason or another, these many contact fizzled out.
I started scanning medical journals for ads and quickly came across one from a Japanese hospital in Okinawa. I sent in my CV and was offered a position there for six months, which I accepted enthusiastically. It came with travel for my wife and me, housing, a car and a reasonable salary as well as an academic position at the University of Hawaii which was sponsoring the program.
In January 1989 we flew to Okinawa, sight unseen. I had a bit of a difficult time at first adapting to living, working and teaching in the Japanese culture, but in the end we had a marvelous time and were invited back two years later for another six months.
Our overall plan was to work six months, play six months, then work again for six months. As I will relate later, that did not work out exactly as planned. Returning from Japan in mid 1989 we travelled all over the US mostly by small camper, and visited places we had always wanted to see. We also began looking for our next “job.”
I came across an ad this time from the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, looking for a senior academician to help out a new young chairman at the University. This appealed to us (remember this was way before the current political and military upheavals in that area of the world). I went for an interview in Boston with the Dean of the Aga Khan University who happened to be in the USA for business. I was offered the job and we started preparing to travel there at the end of 1989.
Again we went sight unseen and were pleasantly surprised to find The Aga Khan University to be not only a magnificent and architecturally breathtaking physical plant, but also a first rate medical school. We needed to adapt a lot to this Muslim culture, which does not look too favorably on women in general. For a male gynecologist that certainly presented a problem, but I got over it and I was accepted. Overall we had a very good time there, even though at one point during the first Gulf war, it was a bit scary.
During our two years in Pakistan we were able to travel during vacation time and managed to drive along the Karakoram high way (old Silk Route) all the way to the border with China, appreciating the tremendous contrast between the sprawling megapolis of Karachi and the starkly beautiful countryside of the North. People were also very different in these two areas.
As we were starting to look for our next assignment, we were fortunate to again come across an ad in one of the journals. South East Alaska Regional Health Consortium (an Alaska Native Corporation serving the medical needs for their area) was looking for a full-time obstetrician and gynecologist for their hospital in Sitka.
As part of our travels we went for a site visit to Sitka and accepted a two-year contract. We started in March of 1993. We fell in love with Sitka, the hospital, its nature and the people. No surprise then that we kept renewing our contract and ended up staying seven years.
There were still many other areas of the world we wanted to visit and in 1999 we felt that it was time to move on, even though we loved Sitka. I tried to find someone amongst my former colleagues at the UM and elsewhere to agree on a 50/50 job share. That would have given us the best of two worlds; stay involved with Sitka and at the same time follow our remaining dreams. However we could not find anyone and thus in the middle of 1999, I reluctantly resigned from my position in Sitka.
We had been in contact with Global Medical Staffing and were offered a position for six months in Townsville in North Queensland, Australia. That is where we went in the winter (their summer) of 2000. Again we had a marvelous professional and social experience. Between August 2000 and mid 2006 the same Global Medical Staffing arranged positions for me twice in Launceston, Tasmania, and twice in Whangarei, in the North Island of New Zealand; six months each, with plenty of time to travel extensively in these areas. Thus we got to appreciate the pros and cons of the medical system in Australia and New Zealand and the vagaries of obtaining temporary medical licensure. What wonderful times!
We could have gone back to these places again but we wanted to slow down a bit and did not want to commit for six months at a time anymore. So we ended up doing shorter locums jobs back in Sitka and Anchorage and in between did some volunteer work in St. Lucia in the West Indies were we have been about seven times for a month at a time.
One of our most gratifying experiences as volunteers came in Chiapas, Mexico. I worked there in a small hospital run by catholic nuns, who are doing an incredible job for the very poor Mayan people under difficult circumstances and with limited resources. There I saw firsthand how it is possible to be a good Catholic and still have an open mind for the family planning needs of the people.
I will end this blog by stating that our decision to get off the beaten path at age 55 was the best decision we ever made. We have never looked back. We have so many wonderful stories to tell and experiences to relate that I finally was talked into writing this all down. I did, and recently published an e book: Crosscultural Doctoring. On and Off the Beaten Path. (That book can be downloaded for free on Smashwords and Amazon-though Amazon will charge 99 cents. The link for Smashwords is: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/161522 and one can select a favored format. In the book I explain why it is available for free.)
Those who want to find out more about the author and the book and view small photo-gallery can go to my website at: http://www.freewebs.com/wimsbook
One of the reasons for this blog is to inspire other professionals, medical and non-medical, to consider getting off the beaten path and to perhaps, motivate others who have had similar experiences to share them and even consider writing a book. I would love to hear from others and perhaps start a discussion group. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
My intent is to continue this blog by periodically posting small excerpts from the book. I hope you will follow them and enjoy them. I also hope that the readers will comment and relate their own experiences.
William LeMaire, MD, is a Clinical Professor Emeritus of the University of Miami, and currently the locum specialist at Mount Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka, Alaska. In addition to receiving a Fogarty Senior International Fellowship at the University of Goteborg in Sweden, he has completed locums Okinawa Japan; Karachi, Pakistan; Sitka, Alaska, Queensland, Australia; Tasmania, Australia; New Zealand; St Lucia in the Caribbean; and Chiapas, Mexico. His book, Cross Cultural Doctoring: On and Off the Beaten Path is available at his website: http://www.freewebs.com/wimsbook