Rearview mirror

Reminiscing after retirement: The joys and dangers of looking back

Some days the pull of the past seems a little more palpable, like when the air is heavy with static electricity ahead of a thunderstorm. Other days that same past seems like a different life.


In the 1980s hit song “The Boys of Summer,” Don Henley sings:

“A little voice inside my head said, ‘Don’t look back, you can never look back.’”

And then a line or two later:

“Those days are gone forever; I should just let them go, but …”

I have yet to see a Deadhead sticker on a Cadillac, but I suspect that it’s only a matter of time.

I’m more than four years out now from my relatively abrupt retirement from surgical practice at the age of 64, and I’m beginning to get a different perspective on the (hopefully) long and open road ahead. But I do find myself still glancing in the rearview mirror, watching my long and very satisfying career recede in perfect symmetry to my journey forward.

Some days the pull of the past seems a little more palpable, like when the air is heavy with static electricity ahead of a thunderstorm. Other days that same past seems like a different life, one lived by a different person.

We don’t stop being physicians when we retire. We just don’t practice anymore. It’s not like anyone breaks a caduceus over their knee and tosses one end out the main entrance of the hospital; we don’t get drummed out or have things unceremoniously ripped from our lab coats. I did relinquish my parking card, but that was about as dramatic as things got for me.

People still call me doctor (even though I tell them that sobriquet belongs to my daughter now) or more commonly ask me: “Aren’t you the heart surgeon?” To which I happily reply, “I used to be.”

It’s at least half true.

Limiting our time in the past

I think it’s OK to revisit the past, as long as you don’t try to live there. I’d wager that for most of us, our medical career was pretty much all-consuming. And what it ravenously consumed was our time and our undivided attention. That’s what retirement now grants us—the time to give that attention to other people and other things. Whatever we want or whatever comes our way—we now have a lot more say in the conduct of our lives.

So why look back at all?

If you were a good physician (and I assume most of us were), you have accumulated enough laurels to stuff a stack of mattresses on which you could and should comfortably rest. Some continue to contribute as advisors or volunteers, keeping the spark, if not exactly the fire, alive.

Others, well, we stopped hanging around the stadium and the locker room the day we quit the game. I don’t know about your clinic or your institution, but mine doesn’t have an Old Timer’s Day. And thank heavens for that.

Fulfilling our own needs

For perhaps the largest chunk of our lives, we loyally and steadfastly fulfilled the needs of others. Retirement, then, should be a time for at least some of that fulfillment to come back our way.

We can’t make up for all the things we may have missed during those years, but we can make sure we don’t miss out on what’s important to us now and going forward. I believe there is tremendous value in letting go—a trick which can be much harder than it sounds.

Medicine had a stronger hold on us than we ever had on it. Letting go in this case needs to be more of an active disengagement. Because, for all its hardships, practicing medicine was usually a lot of fun. Not every minute and definitely not for the whole family, but fun enough to keep us coming back every day. But our memories tend to be filtered and selective.

If you really think about the things we had to see, the things we had to do in times of both tragedy and triumph, well, there does come a time when enough is definitely enough.

And unless you were endowed with the sociopath’s utter lack of empathy or the self-delusions of the malignant narcissist (I believe I saw colleagues with both), there was an underlying component of what we  might  think of as chronic repetitive emotional injury—a carpal tunnel syndrome of the soul, if you will .

Once, when comedian Groucho Marx was portraying a quack doctor, a patient told him, “It hurts when I do this.” In reply  Groucho deadpans, “Don’t do that.” OK, so maybe not such a quack after all. Retirement, then, should be the time when we  “don’t do that” anymore. It’s a kind of afterlife—except you’re still around to share it and enjoy it. No white light at the end of a tunnel, just a sunrise every day. New mornings, not mournings.  

So, act like any good driver  and check your mirrors every so often. But try to stay focused on what’s coming at you and not what you’ve passed. Pull over once in a while and enjoy the view. OnStar be cursed, retirement is definitely not the time to make a safe and legal U-Turn. As Bruce Springsteen would say, it’s a time to sit tight and take hold—because those two lanes really can take you anywhere.

Happy motoring!

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

Related reading:

Retiring from medicine: Knowing when it’s time to get out

The pros and cons of staying involved in medicine after retiring


  1. Robert Prangle D.O (KCUMB 1970)

    Dr Waters
    You hit the nail right on the head. Retired 4 yrs ago at 75 from solo family medicine. I’m still doc to all my golf buddies and invariably give”consults” on various ailments. Every now and again will bump into old patients which rekindles memories of who I used to be.
    Enjoyed your article and echoed my sentiments exactly.

  2. W. Wallis, D.O.

    Well written. Humorous and insightful. I’ve been retired for three years and all of this rings true. It’s ok to get into Mr. Peabody’s Time Machine now and then. Our careers were a dominant feature of our lives and it’s ok to reminisce about the good times. Or, close your eyes and take a giant sigh of relief to be released from call, missed holidays, dark-in, dark-out days and so many other ball-and-chains. But, no need to dwell. I loved my career and the people I worked with for decades, but I haven’t missed a minute of it. I have washed my hands of it; yet, I can still feel that dictaphone in my hand. Only now I’m dictating the findings and impressions for my own life…and it’s really fun.

  3. Robert P Fedor DO

    Good approach to physician retirement. Perused AOA deaths before writing this. About half the deceased DO’s were older than I am at age 75. I retired last year and don’t regret the business of medicine but still do backyard and front yard consults. I estimated I had about 50k patient encounters during my Osteopathic career. My last computer printout from my final practice in Madeira Beach, FL, indicated that I used OMT on 68% of my patients. I missed the hands on the patient approach to treatment therapy but not much else. Sure I had memorable patients and events in my life but now things are simply better at this juncture. I get to live in three and one half states by choice and enjoy my pursuits of life daily.

  4. Dr Joan L Moore DO MSci Lt Col Army retired

    I have finally retired after getting COVID with 10 day hospitalization and moved to Rehoboth Beach Delaware. Finally giving in to my chronologic age of 87. I loved my profession and enjoyed being useful still as a physician. I miss WV which was my home for 39 yrs and truely almost heaven. I thank god every day for my education and the fine mentors I have had in my life and pray for them. In the final chapter of my life I’m thinking about the hereafter and as usual hoping I pass the Final Exam!

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